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
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."
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. …