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U.S. reaches out to China, but not for naval maneuvers

By Jane Perlez

New York Times


BEIJING >> As the United States’ top military commander for Asia and the Pacific wrapped up a four-day tour of China on Friday, the first such visit here by a senior U.S. military officer in four years, a large multinational maritime war exercise hosted by the United States was getting under way in the waters off Hawaii. China was not invited.

The contrast between the message of collaboration brought by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III and the absence of the Chinese in the naval exercise — which included China’s regional rivals, Russia and India, among its 22 participants — highlighted the wary relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries as the United States seeks to reinforce its military presence in Asia and strengthen its regional alliances.

Publicly, Locklear held out a hand of friendship to the Chinese. “I think that as China rises as a power, like any rising power, it has a number of decisions and choices it can make,” he said. “And as it goes through this rise, our objective is for them, as they rise, to rise as a productive partner with us.”

But the Chinese are growing increasingly skeptical about U.S. intentions. In an editorial Friday, The Global Times, a newspaper that leads the nationalist drumbeat here, wrote that China should not worry about being excluded from the naval exercise, known as Rim of the Pacific.

“China should get used to being left out in the cold by the U.S.,” the paper said. “Those who have some knowledge of the military know that the more countries join such an exercise, the less military significance it has.”

During his visit, Locklear, who was appointed to lead the U.S. Pacific Command in April after heading the NATO campaign in Libya last year, spoke at the China Academy of Military Science. In remarks prepared for delivery, he said the U.S. was not in the region to “contain” China but to collaborate with China, and “to improve our compatibility.”

He also said that enhanced U.S. military ties with Pacific allies are “not something China should fear.” Reporters were not permitted to attend.

The visit to China by Locklear was seen as important by Washington, in part because of the long lapse since the last visit by a Pacific commander. China had canceled previously planned visits because of American arms sales to Taiwan.

The goal of the admiral’s visit, U.S. officials said, was to establish more candid and more frequent discussions with senior Chinese military leaders. Among others, Locklear met with Gen. Lian Guanglie, a member of the Central Military Commission, and with the deputy chief of the general staff, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, officials said.

His overall itinerary was similar in some respects to a visit by Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen of Singapore, a nation that attempts to balance its relationship between the United States and China. But Ng was accorded a special audience not included in Locklear’s schedule: a session with Xi Jinping, who is expected to become the next leader of China in the fall.

The United States recently announced that Singapore had given permission for the United States to use its port for four ships for use in coastal waters, called littoral combat ships, new fast vessels central to the Obama administration strategy of projecting increased U.S. power in Asia.

Chinese analysts, who often reflect the views of the military, say that the United States, even as it talks of cooperation, is essentially trying to contain China’s military ambitions. “Containment is a natural subject for China to discuss with Admiral Locklear,” said Shen Dingli, who heads the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Why else would the United States be back and deploy 60 percent of its naval assets from the Middle East to the Pacific?”

On the American side, military experts warn that China’s weaponry soon may be capable of threatening U.S. aircraft carriers in the event of war.

“If these rates of growth in military expenditures continue at similar rates in the coming decade, while ours decline, the current U.S. regional military advantage will begin to erode,” said Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who served as defense attache in Beijing, and as director of strategic plans and policy for the Pacific Command.

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