Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell (undated photo)
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell (undated photo)

The Pentagon on Wednesday called on China to take a more mature approach to military relations with the United States, and not let every dispute result in a suspension of dialogue and exchanges.  The comment came amid unconfirmed reports that the United States has decided to proceed with a long-delayed arms sale to Taiwan.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says the United States is committed to maintaining a consistent military relationship with China and that he hopes China will make the same commitment.

"We have to be mature enough, this relationship has to be important enough to both of us - not just us, both of us - to continue to focus on this and do the hard work it requires, to continue to engage even when times get tough," said Geoff Morrell.

The U.S.-China military relationship could face such a tough time, if reports of a decision to sell anti-missile missiles, military helicopters and communications equipment to Taiwan are true.  News organizations reported the decision this week, quoting unnamed officials.  The reports say the Obama administration has decided not to sell Taiwan F-16 fighter jets, which the island's government had wanted, partly because it would further anger Chinese officials.

Past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have resulted in suspensions of military ties with China and other problems.  U.S. officials were angered in 2007 when China responded to an arms sale and to a visit to Washington by Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama by denying three U.S. Navy ships access to Hong Kong Harbor - two of them during a storm.

In addition, the relationship has been hurt by incidents such as the Chinese harassment of U.S. ships in its economic zone early last year.

Earlier this month, Chinese state-run newspapers quoted officials as calling for "tough counter measures - including postponement or cancellation of military exchanges" if the United States goes ahead with the Taiwan arms sale.

The Pentagon's Geoff Morrell says the time for such actions has passed.

"We believe, and you've heard it from Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates time and time again now, that this relationship is too important to go through the fits and starts that we have over the years, where every little bump in the road results in a breaking of communication and a suspension of dialogue and a hiatus in the direct military-to-military relations," he said

U.S. officials say the more visits, exchanges and joint exercises the American and Chinese militaries can conduct, the less likely it is there will any kind of be confrontation. 

The U.S.-China military relationship is somewhat tense, even in the best of times.  The United States is committed to helping Taiwan maintain its defenses, but China sees the island as a renegade province and sees the sales as perpetuating a situation it would like to change.  In addition, China has sharply increased its defense spending and capability in recent years, and wants to play a larger security role in the Pacific, where Pentagon officials say the United States intends to remain the predominant military power.