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White House denies media reports that it is ‘loosening’ arms exports to China

President Barack Obama may have sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi notifying her that the White House was waiving a section of sanctions law related to the "temporary export" of C-130 transport aircraft to China — but that doesn’t mean the United States plans on selling or allowing the sale of the planes ...

President Barack Obama may have sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi notifying her that the White House was waiving a section of sanctions law related to the "temporary export" of C-130 transport aircraft to China — but that doesn’t mean the United States plans on selling or allowing the sale of the planes to the Chinese military.

The waiver relates to a specific section of the 1990-1991 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, a bill that includes multiple restrictions on arms sales to China that were imposed after the massacre of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Two administration officials said that, in substance, the waiver is extremely limited and doesn’t reflect a change in policy: It only allows C-130 planes to land, refuel, and take off in China for oil spill cleanup operations in China or in parts of Asia that requires transiting China.

"The president’s waiver allows for the temporary export to China of C-130 aircraft only for the purposes of refueling and/or resupplying with oil spill chemical dispersants in China as necessary for oil spill response operations in the Southeast Asia region," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "No C-130 has gone to China or is being sold to China; this is just a waiver for a contingency plan."

Administration officials told The Cable that the State Department will still need to review and issue licenses for any C-130s that travel to China, and that this waiver was granted at the behest of allied countries.

"A European company that has C-130s wanted to be able to use them in a disaster response in that region and needed the waiver just in case they needed to land in China," a senior administration official told The Cable.

That explanation didn’t stop the Washington Times from running an article Monday calling the waiver a "loosening" of sanctions against China and suggesting the move is a carrot to Beijing meant to soften Obama’s call for release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao.

"There was no connection whatsoever" to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the senior administration official said.

The Washington Times also quotes experts warning that the waiver signals a move toward further weakening of the arms embargo against China. Inside the administration, the article caused a lot of frustration, as the paper seemed to be taking China’s official response to the White House letter at face value.

China Daily, a government controlled media organ, published an article entitled, "US may lift Chinese arms embargo," which also incorrectly characterized last week’s announcement as a move toward selling C-130s to Beijing.

Regardless, the furor over the waiver illustrates the rising concern among conservatives about what all sides recognize as an increasingly aggressive posture by China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Among those sharing that concern is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister Liang Guanglie Tuesday in Hanoi. Gates accepted China’s invitation to visit early next year, signifying the resumption of U.S.-China military-to-military ties, which Beijing unilaterally cut off earlier this year.

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