China Power

Panetta Praises China

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta praises China over its response to new US arms sales to Taiwan.

China handled the latest US arms sale to Taiwan in a ‘professional and diplomatic way,’ an approach that bodes well for ties between the two countries, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday.

Speaking in Bali, Panetta noted that the Chinese reaction to the announcement that the United States planned to offer upgrades to Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighter fleet was more subdued than the response to last year’s $6.4 billion arms sale announcement, after which Beijing announced it was temporarily suspending military exchanges.

‘I’ve heard nothing that indicates that they're taking any steps in reaction to (the sale),’ Panetta told reporters. ‘As a matter of fact, I guess I would commend them for the way they've handled the news.’

China’s reaction might, in part, be explained by the fact that the sale could have been much worse in Beijing’s eyes. Taiwan had requested 66 of the latest F-16 C/D fighters, and the fact that Taipei didn’t get what it wanted will have been noted by Chinese policy makers.

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Writing in response to the sale, Gerrit van der Wees, a senior policy advisor for the Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs, described the Obama administration’s move as a bad decision all round.

‘Behind the scenes…there will be some satisfaction (in Beijing) over the fact that the strong pressure on Washington is producing results, and that China has prevented the Obama administration from adding punch to Taiwan’s air force,’ he wrote.

‘(But the decision) is a lose-lose proposition for Obama: Beijing won’t be happy, and won’t be until Taiwan gives up its aspirations to be a full and equal member of the international community. And Taiwan isn’t going to be happy about this either.’

Still, China’s decision not to escalate its disapproval will be widely welcomed, and maintaining amicable military relations rather than suspending exchanges is undoubtedly in the interests of not just Beijing and Washington, but the broader stability of an often tense region.

Van der Wees also suggested that the F-16 decision doesn’t bode well for the United States’ strategic influence in East Asia, ‘as other nations will interpret it as a retreat and a reduction of support for a key nation in the chain of nations bordering China in the Western Pacific.’

It’s an argument that Panetta will be fully familiar with, and one that he moved to address in his remarks today.

‘In the Pacific, we’re concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific,’ Reuters reported Panetta as saying. ‘To have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.’