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China-U.S. military ties grow as countries eye each other at sea

By Bloomberg News

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 06:14 a.m. HST, Sep 30, 2013


China's official People's Daily newspaper lambasted the U.S. when it led the most recent RIMPAC naval drill, the Pacific Ocean military simulation held every other year. The 22-nation exercise reflected Washington's bid to "contain the military rise of another country," it said.

Next year, Chinese ships will join the Rim of the Pacific exercise for the first time. During a visit to the Pentagon last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi described military ties as a "bright spot" in the U.S.-China relationship.

Wang's words and China's participation reflect a changed attitude as the world's two biggest militaries boost contacts despite competing for influence in the Asia-Pacific, home to shipping lanes and resource reserves. The closer ties will be tested as China grows more assertive in a region dotted with nations that would call for U.S. help if attacked.

"The competition and conflicts between China and the U.S. will still be there, but it will prevent them from escalating to an unmanageable level," Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said by phone. "It is preventable diplomacy rather than positive cooperation."

U.S.-China ties will be on display at next week's Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders meeting in Bali. China's territorial disputes in the South China Sea may be discussed, along with changing U.S. and Chinese roles in the region.

Rising Competition

Military competition between the the U.S. and China is on the rise even as the two foster closer links, with China's defense budget more than doubling since 2006. Though its military spending is less than one-fifth of the U.S., China has developed drones, stealth fighters and an aircraft carrier while deploying a type of anti-ship ballistic missile the U.S. says is meant to threaten U.S. carriers in the region.

That buildout comes as China has pushed its territorial claims more forcefully in the South and East China seas and as the U.S. Navy plans to move more forces to the region in a strategic shift.

China's naval expansion "is largely about countering" the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Captain James Fanell, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and information operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, said in a January presentation at a conference in San Diego.

Mutual Defense

"They want to have the capability to make sure that events do not occur in those three seas that they do not approve of," said Bernard Cole, a former Navy officer who teaches at the National War College in Washington, referring to the Yellow, East and South China seas. "The problem from a U.S. perspective is that we have mutual defense treaties with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines."

Recent contacts offer a counterpoint to unease on both sides. In August, China's Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited the Pentagon and the commander of China's navy, Admiral Wu Shengli, got a tour of a U.S. Los Angeles-class attack submarine in San Diego in September. Also last month, three Chinese ships joined search-and-rescue exercises with the U.S. off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

RIMPAC is held by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in seas around the Hawaiian islands. The exercises once trained for conflict with the Soviet Union and later included Russia as a participant. China was an observer to the drills in 1998.

Attend Exercise

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi announced China would attend the exercise after a summit between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping in California in June. During the talks, the two vowed to build "a new type of military relations," Yang said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

"This is to us a very visible manifestation of the idea that a rising China can provide a positive contribution to international security," U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said of China's participation in RIMPAC when he visited Beijing Sept. 10.

Still, closer ties between the U.S. and the People's Liberation Army can be reversed, Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by phone. The visits and the RIMPAC exercises are the "warm fuzzies of military diplomacy," he said.

U.S. reconnaissance as well as arms sales to Taiwan remain problems in the military relationship with China, Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Science, wrote in the People's Daily in August.

Sensitive Information

China's participation in RIMPAC sparked concern in the U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, introduced an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act seeking to limit Chinese exposure to "sensitive information obtained through military-to-military contacts."

"This it not like turning over an entirely new leaf, this is just one small step forward to develop a slightly more positive relationship with the PLA," Bitzinger said. "There's going to be steps forward and steps backward. And every time there's a step backward generally U.S.-allied ties get stronger."






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