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Obama in no-win situation over Taiwan arms sale

The United States and China have resumed military-to-military relations and are going full speed ahead, but the reforged ties are delicate, the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific said Tuesday. This spells trouble for Taiwan, which has been waiting for an answer from Barack Obama‘s administration as to whether a pending arms deal will ...

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The United States and China have resumed military-to-military relations and are going full speed ahead, but the reforged ties are delicate, the U.S. military's top commander in the Pacific said Tuesday.

This spells trouble for Taiwan, which has been waiting for an answer from Barack Obama's administration as to whether a pending arms deal will go through -- the very deal that could scuttle the newly renewed U.S.-China military dialogue.

The People's Republic of China cut off military-to-military relations with the United States following the 2008 sale of arms to Taiwan by the George W. Bush administration. Now there is a new weapons deal with Taiwan in the works, which Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who heads Pacific Command (Pacom), warns could result in China severing mil-to-mil ties again if it goes through.

The United States and China have resumed military-to-military relations and are going full speed ahead, but the reforged ties are delicate, the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific said Tuesday.

This spells trouble for Taiwan, which has been waiting for an answer from Barack Obama‘s administration as to whether a pending arms deal will go through — the very deal that could scuttle the newly renewed U.S.-China military dialogue.

The People’s Republic of China cut off military-to-military relations with the United States following the 2008 sale of arms to Taiwan by the George W. Bush administration. Now there is a new weapons deal with Taiwan in the works, which Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who heads Pacific Command (Pacom), warns could result in China severing mil-to-mil ties again if it goes through.

“If the administration were to announce a new round of Taiwanese arms sales, I’m sure the Chinese would say ‘We have the right to consider turning off mil-to-mil relations,'” Keating said.

According to reports, China made a plea for the U.S. to scrap the planned $6.5 billion arms sale to Taiwan during a June visit to Beijing by Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy. Flournoy’s visit was also where the Chinese agreed to resume the mil-to-mil discussions.

Pacom’s strategic planning and policy head, Major Gen. Randolph D. “Tex” Alles, followed up by traveling to Beijing after Flournoy. A team of U.S. logistics officials also visited China as part of a multilateral conference, and more port visits and other meetings are expected.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is not expected to visit China again anytime soon, because it is his Chinese counterpart’s turn, according to diplomatic protocol.

Meanwhile, the arms deal with Taiwan, which is composed mostly of F-16 fighter jets, remains in limbo. The Taiwan government has been waiting for but has not received any response from the new White House, diplomatic sources told The Cable.

In recent years, China has beefed up its military capabilities across the Taiwan Strait, raising questions about the island not-quite-nation’s ability to defend itself in the unlikely event of an attack from the mainland.

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has made four transits through the United States, during which he lobbied for the F-16 sale to sympathetic political figures such as Arizona Sen. John McCain. Part of Taiwan’s argument is the estimated 4,000-5,000 jobs that the sale might create at the Lockheed Martin factory in Texas.

But Taiwan has been no match for the counter-lobbying from the Chinese side, including a direct warning on the matter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington in July, the sources said.

The clock is ticking for Taiwan, because its parliament has already budgeted the funds for the weapons but would have to start its acquisition process over if no answer is proffered by the end of the year. But Taiwan’s government has no illusions that the Obama team would sacrifice its military connection with China or risk an ambitious bilateral agenda that includes climate change, energy, and a host of trade and other economic issues.

Interestingly, Keating said that the pace of Chinese buildup of missiles opposite Taiwan has slowed, but he couldn’t offer an explanation for that development.

On Japan, Keating said that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense were still expressing interest in buying F-22 Raptor fighters from the U.S., but that it didn’t look good because the Obey amendment, named for Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey, preventing their export would likely remain in effect and the production line was shutting down.

“The Japanese would like to buy the F-22, but we’re not going to sell it to them,” said Keating.

He claimed not to know anything beyond published reports about discussions with Japan about removing U.S. fighter jets from that country and said such discussions are going on all the time.

File Photo by TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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