A Bid for Better Military Relations with China

Article excerpt

US military officials are in China this week for their first high- level visit there since an international flap in November in which Beijing refused to allow US warships into a port for a long-planned Thanksgiving visit.

The incident baffled Washington and further complicated US relations with the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). But that's only one of many issues for military officials as they work to create clearer lines of communication between the two militaries - generally perceived to be a weaker relationship than the diplomatic or the economic ones.

Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command, and James Shinn, a newly minted assistant secretary of Defense for the region, left Saturday for a week-long trip to China. Their visit will include high-level meetings in which the US aims to better understand the PLA's decisionmaking process and to try to answer the Pentagon's broader questions about China's rapid military buildup and its intentions toward neighboring Taiwan.

But the elephant in the room may be a series of incidents last fall after the PLA refused to allow the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its accompanying ships into the Hong Kong port for a planned Thanksgiving visit. The PLA said it was a "misunderstanding," and a day later agreed to allow the ships in. But the Kitty Hawk had already departed, US officials say, disappointing more than 300 family members of American sailors who had flown there to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones.

Earlier that week, China refused safe harbor during a storm to two American minesweepers, the USS Patriot and the USS Guardian - in violation of international maritime agreements.

The moves may have been a way for China to show its displeasure after President Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet whom China sees as a separatist, some analysts say. If so, they say, it's one more sign of China's willingness to use the military relationship with the US for political purposes.

It's not clear American officials will ever get to the bottom of Chinese motivations. When Admiral Keating and Mr. Shinn meet with Chinese military officials, Keating will try to get past it, but the incident is likely to come up.

"His goal is to get beyond that," says an official with US Pacific Command who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He may ask the question, but he doesn't want to dwell on that."

Mysterious motives

Problems with port visits are symptomatic of larger questions about why China's military does what it does. China has built more ships and submarines - at a pace faster than the US could build them, members of Congress have noted - and last year it unveiled a sleek jet fighter, called the Jian-10, capable of firing precision- guided missiles. …