US Arms Sales to Taiwan Stifle US-China Military Engagement

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To protest the US's arms sales to Taiwan, China halted contact between the two nations' militaries, which has expanded in recent months to include study tours and naval exercises. China also threatened Tuesday to retaliate against US companies involved in the arms sales.

Twelve months of friendly American diplomatic overtures and weeks of private warnings were not enough. Since Washington announced last week a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, an island Beijing regards as a renegade province, China has vented its anger just as fiercely as ever.

Deflating United States' hopes that this time it would be different, China immediately suspended contacts between the two countries' militaries, just as it did in 2008 reacting to a previous US arms deal with Taipei.

The move disappointed US military planners who had looked forward to better and more stable relations with their Chinese counterparts.

"I'd hoped that in the future we could shield the military-to- military relationship from the political ups and downs," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday. "I think that we have a lot to learn from each other."

Mr. Gates's own planned trip to China this year is now up in the air as a result of the Chinese decision.

So are a range of activities that mostly happen in the shadows, such as study visits by Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers to US universities like the National Defense University in Washington, reciprocal study tours by US officers at Chinese institutions, and naval exercises. The Pentagon has been building such ties quietly, as it warily pursues engagement with a potential enemy.

Gates said he hoped the suspension would be temporary, because "stability is enhanced by contact between our military and a greater understanding of each others' strategies."

Engagement, however wary

In testimony last month to the House Armed Services Committee, the new head of US Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, warned that China's "stated goals of a defense-oriented military capability ... appear incompatible with the extent of sophisticated weaponry China produces today.

"Reconciling these two can only occur through continuous frank conversations and mutual actions within a strong and mature military- to-military relationship," Willard said. Such a relationship, he added, "does not yet exist with the People's Liberation Army."

The Chinese military is also keen to maintain contacts, says Yan Xuetong, head of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "China wants to know more about American military details," he says, "and the talks have some diplomatic use to give the US more confidence in China."

The public relationship between the Chinese and US military is conducted through a series of joint bodies that meet every six months or so to address issues ranging from strategic global matters to the safety of seamen. …