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Capitalise on Panetta visit

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


Next week US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta will visit Beijing to meet with senior Chinese military officials. The trip marks his first visit to China as Pentagon chief, and most observers agree that the two sides have some contentious issues to discuss.

A lot of media speculation has focused on the likelihood that talks will cover different approaches to the handling of territorial claims in the South China Sea. It is probable that the disputes will top the discussion agenda.

China has long preferred to peacefully discuss competing claims on a bilateral basis without outside interference. But Washington junked its neutral position toward the issue in July 2010 (purportedly at the request of one of China's neighbours), and expressed a preference for a "multilateral" remedy to the disputes. Washington even proclaimed that it has a "national interest" in the South China Sea. The two sides remain at loggerheads over the issue.

The rising tensions between Japan and China over the Diaoyu Islands could also be discussed. The "nationalisation" of the Diaoyu Islands by the Japanese government has inflamed passions on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan both. Moreover, a wide range of pressing international problems, including piracy (Beijing and Washington plan to conduct anti-piracy sea drills), terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to name just a few, could find their way into the talks.

In addition to these topics, there is a potentially explosive issue that could soar to the top of the meeting's agenda, namely, US arms sales to Taiwan. As Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said last year, US arms sales to Taiwan remain the "main source" of friction in Sino-US relations.

Relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are at their best. The two sides have inked a free trade pact, opened direct flights between major cities and signed an agreement enabling thousands of mainland tourists to visit Taiwan. More than 1 million Taiwan compatriots now live on the mainland. There is talk of a peace agreement. A declaration of "Taiwan independence" is out of the question, and nothing else could spark a conflict.

In fact, Beijing has long pledged to work for peaceful reunification of China. And Deng Xiaoping reportedly said the country could even wait "a millennium" to achieve this goal.

Despite the remarkable improvements in cross-Straits relations, some US politicians have sought to turn Taiwan into a "political football" to bash the incumbent US president. Although Washington has sold more than US$12 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in the past two years (comparable or more than any period in the history of US-Taiwan unofficial relations), these politicians make the wild claim that the president has somehow "abandoned" Taiwan. They have conducted a series of congressional hearings to "investigate" such claims and used them as a platform to accuse the president of "cozying up to Beijing with a wink and a nod". The highly charged partisan atmosphere of these hearings is now being matched by the official statements released by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign.

The Romney campaign website says: "We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms." A Romney aide elaborated on this point, explaining that "[Massachusetts] Governor Romney strongly believes that we should sell Taiwan those [F-16 C/D] air fighters". He added that the sale of advanced warplanes would "increase American jobs".

In other words, the Romney campaign views arms sales to Taiwan as an "economic stimulus plan". Surprisingly, this is no longer a "fringe" position in American politics. Economic considerations were emphasised in petitions submitted to the president that called for the approval of the F-16 C/D warplane sale (47 US Senators and 181 members of the US House of Representatives signed petitions urging approval of the sale). Opinion pieces in major American newspapers have also touted the financial benefits of arms sales to Taiwan.

Much of the election rhetoric being peddled by the Romney campaign must be dismissed as little more than bluff and bluster. One way or another, the "China issue" often seems to find its way into election-year politics, and proposals calling for major changes in US policy are subsequently forgotten after the voters go to the polls. For example, former US president Ronald Reagan threatened to "re-establish" official relations with Taiwan and sell the island a new warplane (the FX fighter) during his 1980 presidential bid. But he did not follow through on either of these campaign promises.

Too much ink has already been spilled analyzing the explanations Washington has proffered to justify continued arms sales to Taiwan, and why the mainland has consistently opposed such sales. Suffice it to say the two countries hold very different views on the matter and neither will budge from its respective position.

But it is noteworthy that the US government has never rationalised arms sales to Taiwan as part of a "jobs package". And Panetta's hosts in Beijing will probably remind him that China would not respond well to such a change in US policy.

To be sure, there have been many twists and turns in Sino-American relations during the past decades, and this important relationship will continue to confront many challenges in the coming years. Given the stakes involved, both countries should take steps to avoid manufacturing crises for domestic political gains.

Therefore, the US and China should use the occasion of Panetta's visit to explore ways to reduce tensions and promote cooperation.

Although there are numerous areas of disagreement, there are also many areas of common ground that can help Washington and Beijing promote peace, prosperity and stability on a regional and global basis.

The author is a professor of political science and director of Graduate Programme in Global Studies at Missouri State University, US.


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