President Obama issued a waiver loosening Tiananmen arms sanctions for C-130 military transports for China a day after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an imprisoned Chinese dissident who dedicated the prize this past weekend to the victims of the 1989 crackdown.
Chinese state-run news media on Monday hailed the White House waiver announcement as a sign Washington is moving to lift the 11-year-old arms embargo.
However, White House National Security Council spokesman Michael Hammer said the waiver issued on Saturday will not allow C-130s sales. “Under this announcement, we are not selling any aircraft to anyone,” he stated in an e-mail.
Mr. Obama’s letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing the waiver states that it is lifting a ban on “temporary munitions export licenses” for C-130s that currently is banned by the fiscal 1990 Foreign Relations Act. The law bars sales to China of “any defense item on the U.S. Munitions Control list” unless “the president makes a report” waiving the restriction.
Mr. Hammer said the waiver is intended to assist companies in Southeast Asia that use C-130s for cleaning up oil spills. The waiver will permit C-130s to land in China to refuel, or take on chemicals used in dispersing oil spills, after first obtaining a U.S. export license, he said.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said the lack of any urgent oil spill emergency and the timing of the waiver so close to the Nobel award “sends a mixed signal to the Chinese leadership and undercuts President Obama’s call for Liu Xiaobo’s release, especially in light of the June 4 genesis of the U.S. export ban.”
The waiver announcement and China’s view of it also raised concerns among some specialists who view it as a step by the Obama administration toward eventually lifting the arms embargo.
“The C-130 proposal is obviously a toe in the water and, as such, should be rejected,” said John Bolton, former undersecretary of state for international security. “This administration seems to have two messages about America for foreign governments: weak and weaker.”
Edward Timperlake, a former Pentagon technology security official, agreed: “This will ultimately undermine Tiananmen sanctions because the Chinese state-controlled media is hyping that as their objective.”
“A very courageous Chinese citizen just received the Nobel Prize, and his wife has been placed under house arrest — announcing this waiver now makes a mockery of any administration pretense of supporting human rights, regardless of the expedient environmental fig-leaf justification,” Mr. Timperlake said.
An administration official said the waiver covers all C-130s, military or civilian, “but is intended for those used by oil spill companies, which routinely use them.”
“This waiver doesn’t lift the U.S. license requirement and doesn’t provide any kind of blanket authorization,” the official said. “We would still process license applications on a case-by-case basis. This is merely for contingency plans — to get material to the site wherever an environmental disaster occurs.”
Chinese human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, said over the weekend that he dedicated the prize to the victims of Tiananmen Square, according to his wife, Liu Xia.
Mrs. Liu told reporters that Mr. Liu said on Sunday of the prize: “This is for the lost souls of June 4” — the date used to described the events of the 1989 massacre in which hundreds and perhaps thousands of Chinese were killed when military tanks and armored vehicles fired on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s main square.
The waiver also appears linked to the current visit to Vietnam by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who on Monday repeated U.S. concerns about growing Chinese assertiveness over the South China Sea. “The U.S. has a long-standing national interest in freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s maritime commons,” Mr. Gates said.
Vietnam is said by U.S. officials to be worried about growing Chinese territorial encroachment in the resource-rich South China Sea, which China has in the past declared off-limits to non-Chinese fishing vessels.
China also set off alarms among governments in the region in August by announcing it has planted a Chinese flag on the floor of the South China Sea, using a mini-submarine.
The China Times report quoted Chinese Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo of the Academy of Military Science as saying the U.S. should sell military goods like C-130s to China.
“As a tactical transport, C-130 cargo aircraft serve for middle-ranged deliveries — that is, the distance is within the [battlefield] theater,” said Col. Zhao.
The C-130, first flown in 1954, is considered one of the world’s premier military transports that can take off and land on rough airstrips. The aircraft is used widely by U.S. special forces commandos, for parachute troops, to launch drones and for dropping 10,000-pound bombs.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China affairs specialist, said the C-130 waiver and China’s response appeared linked to Mr. Gates’ visit to the region.
“It sends the wrong message to the Southeast Asians, its send the wrong message to the Chinese,” Mr. Tkacik said. “We should not be encouraging the Chinese to have long-range air-lift capabilities for their military.”
China currently operates a fleet of similar Y-8 Shaanxi transports and is building a Y-9 transport that closely resembles the C-130.