First, Admiral Tim Keating, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, confirmed Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation that the Bush Administration has an arms freeze. There’s so much to talk about here…first one of the many news reports, from Max Hirsch at Kyodo:

A top U.S. military commander has confirmed for the first time that Washington has slapped a blanket freeze on pending arms deals to Taipei, saying there is no urgent need for the weapons sales to proceed, despite Beijing’s rapid military modernization.

Asked at a Heritage Foundation-hosted conference in Washington on Wednesday if he knew of ”a temporary freeze that’s been put on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” Adm. Timothy Keating, who commands the U.S. Pacific Command, said, ”Yes. I am aware.”

”The folks who have made these decisions have reconciled Taiwan’s current military posture, China’s current military posture and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we’re talking about [sic],” he added.

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Next, Taiwan-related portions of the transcript from Heritage (audio, Keating starts at 27:11):

John Zang: John Zang with CTITV Taiwan, Sir, are you aware of a temporary freeze that’s been put on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan?

Admiral Keating: Yes

John Zang: Who are the people doing this, and why?

Admiral Keating: I am aware… There have been no significant arms sales from the United States to Taiwan in relatively recent times. It is administration policy; I would not be well positioned to speak for the State Department or the National Security Council of the White House. You are aware as am I of our country’s policy position, we want to do nothing to destabilize the straits. We are committed to the defense of Taiwan and the folks who make these decisions I believe have reconciled Taiwan’s current military posture, China’s current military posture and strategy. That indicates there is no pressing and compelling need for at this moment arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we are talking about.

Bill Gertz: Bill Gertz from The Washington Times, my question is about the deterrence, I am told that the Pacific Command — which has the responsibility to come to Taiwan’s defense in certain circumstances of a Chinese attack — that it doesn’t have a formal joint task force or forces designated or even a formal Pacific Command organization to implement the Taiwan Relations Act or to prepare for the defense of Taiwan; that the policy reasons for this in that doing so would quote “Turn China into an enemy” Is this in fact the case, and if it’s true, does that raise questions about whether we could deter a Chinese attack?

Admiral Keating: Let me take this in reverse order if I could, Bill. I believe, I hope, and we’re trying to instill a very clear sense of military preeminence as to be a powerful deterrent against, let’s say, China’s kinetic military undertaking against Taiwan — or anybody else — but in the specific case of Taiwan, I want them to know that they are going to lose. China! So don’t bother! Again, take that high end option stuff off the plate. So we hope to be a very powerful deterrent. And again, every day that goes by, that missiles aren’t flying across the Strait, I believe that deterrence is effective. Now, to go back to the first part of your question for I understand it, do we at Pacific Command have a joint task force committed to operations that might be directed should hostility break out across the Strait? We do have a task force that does that on a day to day basis. We stand them up and collapse them. We add to and take from them the manning of the joint task force but we have folks who are designated as a specific task force for that very reason. So the answer is: whoever told you that… has it wrong, is what I would say.

Bill Gertz: Can I add something to that?

Admiral Keating: Sure.

Bill Gertz: The arm sales to Taiwan and considering the latest Pentagon report shows that the military balances clearly shifting across the Strait in China’s favor.

Admiral Keating: Yeah… that’s a tough question. If you do the military math, China’s (sic) [Taiwan’s] air force for example ain’t getting any younger and if you believe that they would be at a significant disadvantage in the event of an outbreak of hostility, then they need to get newer airplanes. Well, which is a problem for some of us, in the United States Navy and Air Force and Marine Corps are familiar. It’s pretty expensive hardware these days in the case of airplanes.

The indirect answer to your question is: I’m hopeful, optimistic, that the Taiwan defensive systems and the training of the Taiwan forces and the motivation of the Taiwan military is sufficient to convince China it is very much not in China’s interest to come across the Strait in military fashion, and the knowledge of everybody in the area that the United States of America reserves the right to respond — to a degree that our national leadership tells us to respond, and we are capable of so responding, on a minute-to-minute basis is quantifiable and ready.

[deleted]

Gregory Hao Fung: What is your policy recommendation to the White House and current administration? It looks like it is in the Chinese 5-year, 10-year policy strategy to do it?

Admiral Keating: I am not sure I am getting your question. My advice to the Secretary of Defense, my immediate boss is: let us keep working with the Chinese. And please don’t leave here with the impression that all we and the Pacific commanders worry about is — or even think about — is China. Couldn’t be further from the truth. We are concerned with China. We spend a modest amount of time thinking about them, but we have got other countries with whom we are equally interested, with whom we are as engaged, or more engaged . . . is that engagement, is that cooperation, is that collaboration, is that relentless, day-to-day effort to draw folks closer to us, to spend more time with us and with them.

As an example we just sent our senior enlisted leader Air Force chief master sergeant Jim Roy to China, so as to help the Chinese develop an understanding of what it’s like to have a powerful, well trained, capable, eminently-capable, senior non-commissioned officer corps. In the People’s Liberation Army, there is no such thing as an E9, or E8, or E7 even. So we asked Jim Roy to go, the Secretary Defense so directed us, and Jim spent a week in and around China. His counterparts interestingly, the folks who met him when he went off the airplane were senior colonels. So there is this gap, this difference, we want to encourage them to think about things in a different way, in a more collaborative way, a more cooperative way so as to do our level best to preclude eliminate the likelihood of military conflict in the sea.

[section on Korea deleted]

Betty Lin: Betty Lin of the World Journal, Last time when you were at the Pentagon for the press conference on the Chinese earthquake relief, you talked about you may visit China again even before the Olympics. So, I like to know whether you still plan to visit in the near future and what do you expect to see and talk over there, and during your dealing with the Guangzhou military commander. Anything he say that concerns you? And what did he most concern about and what did he talk about Taiwan? [MT: a well-known correspondent told me that Lin is one of the most well-respected journalists on Taiwan issues]

[deleted off-topic stuff]

Betty Lin: Did he talk about Taiwan?

Admiral Keating: Good question, yeah, he did talk about Taiwan.

Umm, aha, um. His description of the situation in China, his description of the tension across the Strait and his appreciation for the situation in Taiwan, all of them lead me to, led me to believe that he has a good understanding for the situation. He does not want conflict with across the Strait and he is more optimistic today than he was the first time I met him in May ‘07 that there will be continued peace and stability in the region.

[several questions deleted]

51:30 Charles Snyder: I’m Charles Snyder of the Taipei Times, if I can get back to the freeze and the arms sales. The systems that are subject to the freeze, even if they were approved today or offered today, wouldn’t get to Taiwan for several years, especially in the case of the submarines,

Admiral Keating: . . . a little while . . .

Charles Snyder: . . .and the situation there in the Straits, internationally, could be substantially difference in a period in which China has continued to increase its military spending and modernize its forces. Are you not concerned that sometime in the future, what we do now might have a serious impact on the situation and the ability of Taiwan to defend itself and the ability of the United States to get . .

Admiral Keating: . . . yeah . .

Snyder: . . .help.

Admiral Keating: Am I concerned? I would say I’m not “concerned”. It is a “consideration”. And as we engage in discussions with my boss in the Pentagon and Secretary Rice and the folks in the National Security Council, we run through these “considerations.” When I am asked, I am “concerned,” I say “I am not . . . overly concerned.” It is something we regard carefully, it is a situation that we’re doing everything in our power to preclude occurring, that is to say, the outbreak of hostilities across the Strait, and I’m more comfortable today – here’s this theme again — than I was fifteen months ago, that my belief is well-founded, that there is very, very, very, (three “very’s”) unlikely that there will be conflict across the Straits.

Again, if you do the military math, Taiwan’s stuff ‘s getting older, China’s stuff’s good, and getting newer, there is an imbalance. I think our country’s policy, that we’re doing everything that we can to defuse tensions in the Strait, has borne fruit and is much more likely to be, ah, “unchallenged” in the near-, to mid-, and even to long-term. So, long answer to a short question: it’s a “consideration”, it’s not a “concern.”

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The Nelson Report, the Washington Insider report, said of this talk:

First, PACOM Adm. Tim Keating has some ’splainin’ to do, following his stunning admission at Heritage that he confers with China about arms sales to Taiwan. What sounds like common sense in any practical world is a legal problem…the Taiwan Relations Act very specifically says he can’t.

Keating apparently was trying to reinforce the notion that arms sales aren’t needed at the moment because under the new KMT government, cross strait tensions are down, and relations are positive.

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TAIWAN…we’ve been negligent in not writing recently on the budding Taipei-Beijing dialogue, and how the DPP is reacting to KMT initiatives.

The subject forces its way to tonight’s agenda with word that PACOM Admiral Tim Keating, normally a smooth as silk political operative, stepped into some deep doo doo today, indicating to a stunned Heritage Foundation audience that the Navy confers with China on the subject of arms sales to Taiwan.

He said he “couldn’t speak for the White House, or State” on the question (wow, is THAT right!!) but that in any event, he felt the US-China and cross-strait situation is such that is US “policy” not to sell arms to Taiwan at this time, for fear of unnecessarily upsetting things.

As noted in the Summary, US-China consultations about all aspects of stability in the Strait makes plain common sense, and it’s gone on for 30+ years. But there is a very specific section in the law…the Taiwan Relations Act…which Keating implicitly, and perhaps explicitly has now admitted is routinely violated.

Moreover, he has, obviously inadvertently, opened up a very difficult can of worms in US-China relations, the famous “six assurances” given Taiwan by President Reagan.

Here’s how one expert summarizes the current legal situation:

The remarks seem to “violate the TRA, especially Section 3(b) that H.Res.676 warned the President not to do last October. It would also violate the Six Assurances of July 14, 1982, that:

In negotiating the third Joint Communique with the PRC, the United States:

1. has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan;
2. has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to
Taiwan;
3. will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing;
4. has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
5. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
6. will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC.

In fairness to Adm. Keating, he probably thought that the bulk of his discussion was his main point…that the US remains firmly committed to the defense of Taiwan. And he said, we are a strong deterrent and we want Beijing to know that “they would lose” if they attack.

But, as noted, we observe the current situation in Taiwan, the PRC etc., and we don’t want to do anything (including arms sales) that would upset the situation.[MT: as many observers have pointed out, there is always something going on, so essentially this is an argument for never doing anything.]

On the shifting military balance, he said Taiwan needs newer aircraft. He said he is “hopeful,” “optimistic” that Taiwan’s defensive systems, training, etc., is sufficient to convince China it is not in China’s interest to come across the Strait “in military fashion.”

But, he warned, the US reserves the right to respond to the degree the President says we should, and in such an event, he as PACOM can assure China and Taiwan we have the capability to do so.

He also made some barely subtle references to active containment of China, noting on the map how US PACOM joint exercises with our friends and allies in the region form a pattern obvious to everyone, especially Beijing.

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Tons of information. The problem is sorting out what is true and what is not. A WaPo story on this several weeks ago pointed to Sec. of State Rice as one of the leading voices, but some of my friends in Washington are saying that State was a bit taken aback by the remarks.

This post is here for your reference. I’ll have a more extended discussion of the issue up later today when I finish my write-up of Randall Shriver’s talk at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club.