US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said on Sunday that Beijing deserved credit for its relatively moderate response to Washington’s announcement last month of a $5.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan, and suggested that it could pave the way for better US-China ties.
In the past, China reacted to US arms sales to Taiwan by cutting back or freezing military-to-military contacts. Last year, Beijing suspended military exchanges with the US after the Obama administration notified Congress of the go-ahead for a $6.4 billion arms sale package to Taiwan. But this time the response was toned down when the US announced an arms deal that will only upgrade Taiwan’s existing F-16 fighter jet fleet.
At a news conference in Bali, Mr Panetta in a rare praise of China said he appreciated what he termed as a mild Chinese response and a "professional and diplomatic way" of handling the latest arms deal, adding that he is unaware of any steps China is taking to scale back military-to-military exchanges in response to the latest sale.
Mr Panetta is in Bali for a meeting of defence ministers from ASEAN at the invitation of host member Indonesia. On Sunday Mr Panetta met with the country's defence minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro. The Bali meeting marks the start of Mr Panetta’s Asian tour that will take him next to Japan and then South Korea, coinciding with talks between the US and North Korea in Geneva on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
Report: Panetta Praises China for Response to Taiwan Arms Sale (VOA, 23 Oct 2011)
Report: Panetta praises China for "professional" handling of latest US arms sale to Taiwan(Washington Post, 23 Oct 2011)
The US and North Korea are due to hold talks in Geneva to discuss reviving the stalled six-party nuclear negotiations, which collapsed in April 2009 when North Korea walked out of the talks, conducting its second nuclear test a month later and ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula. This marks second direct encounter between the two sides in less than three months.
US officials say the "exploratory" meeting is meant to keep North Korea engaged in discussions, but are not formal negotiations.
Although both sides say they want the six-party talks to resume, they differ on the terms. North Korea wants a restart without preconditions but the US wants a firm commitment towards nuclear disarmament from North Korea before restarting the talks.
However, the Geneva meeting mark an improvement in relations since North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship and shelled an island near a disputed border, which the North has blamed on South Korea. Even though diplomats are warning against expecting too much from the talks, and with six-party talks unlikely to quickly resume, the Geneva talks are seen as a positive step.
Report: North Korea and US nuclear talks set to start in Geneva (BBC, 23 Oct 2011)
Report: US-North Korea talks gear up (Politico, 23 Oct 2011)
Meanwhile, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang in his visit to North Korea has pressed the country to improve ties with the US and South Korea to bolster stability in the region.
Mr Li’s message appears to be aimed at further diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program that is already ongoing and to enhance China’s part in it. Mr Li’s three-day trip to North Korea is immediately followed by a two-day visit to South Korea, highlighting Beijing’s good ties with both Koreas and its desire to restart the stalled six-party talks.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that Mr Li told the North Korean premier Choe Yong Rim on Sunday that China supports North Korean efforts "to take the right direction for engagement and dialogues, resume the six-party talks at an early date".
Ahead of Mr Li’s arrival on Sunday, Xinhua reported that China-North Korean trade nearly doubled in the first seven months of the year, rising to $3.1 billion, an 87% growth over the same period in 2010. But this bilateral trade is still dwarfed by economic ties between China and South Korea, which is forecast to reach about $250 billion for all of 2011.
Report: Chinese leader urges ally North Korea to improve ties with US, South Korea(Washington Post, 24 Oct 2011)