It is refreshing to encounter some mildly positive news on US-China security relations. After a long cycle of pessimism about prospects for improved trust and dialogue between the two powers, it appears Washington and Beijing are quietly coordinating to ensure that the latest announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan does not completely derail the fragile process of talks and engagement between their militaries.
Central to an apparent deal is the US Administration’s decision merely to upgrade Taipei’s existing F-16 A/B fighter aircraft rather than replacing them with more advanced F-16 C/Ds. (And to those who might argue that this amounts to sacrificing the interests of Taiwan to prevent yet another US-China diplomatic spat, it is worth bearing in mind that even an F-16 C/D deal would have made little difference to the overall cross-Strait military balance.)
To be sure, there is plenty of huffing and puffing in the Chinese media anyway. After all, the previous round of military transfers to Taiwan was cited by Beijing as the reason for its yearlong suspension of mil-mil dialogue in 2010: the very time when, as our work on maritime confidence-building has shown, a rising occurrence of incidents at sea meant such communication was in everybody’s interest.
This time round, Chinese government representatives are warning of unspecified repercussions, while even thoughtful commentators such as Zhu Feng argue that Beijing will not be able to tolerate continued arms sales to Taipei in the long run — a view reinforced by readings of Chinese public opinion. And there may still be a prospect of some new curbs to US-China military relations, given that these are a much easier target for symbolic Chinese sanctions than something more closely related to economic interdependence. Admiral Willard’s comments suggest US Pacific Command is braced for some diplomatic fallout.
But on balance it looks as if good sense has prevailed in China’s internal debates, and a full suspension of military diplomacy is not imminent. Accordingly, those of us who had become used to pointing to the strength of hardliners in the lead-up to Beijing’s 2012 leadership transition need to think again. Some of the lessons of 2010 – notably, that an assertive stance can harm China’s interests – are being heard. For now, and on the military dialogue issue at least, the pragmatists are rediscovering a welcome degree of influence.
The bigger lesson, however, is the reminder that China’s foreign and security policy establishment has become a remarkably multi-headed or even conflicted creature, as Linda Jakobson and David Shambaugh have convincingly explained. Sensible influences are resurfacing in some quarters, even while certain agencies and nationalist mouthpieces continue to push the boundaries of destabilising behaviour and discourse on such issues as maritime differences with Vietnam and, most recently, India.
In this environment, other nations would benefit from fully considering the benefits and consequences of their statements or actions, to determine whether it is really worth providing China’s ‘nativist’ nationalists, Marxists and Realists (the foreign policy hardliners of Shambaugh’s typology) with extra political ammunition during what remains a sensitive time.