Sunday, October 25, 2009

Xu visit puts spotlight on China-US military ties


By Olivia Hampton

China's second-highest ranking officer kicks off Saturday a week-long visit to the United States amid signs that testy military relations between the superpowers are thawing.The trip by General Xu Caihou, the most high-profile Chinese military official to travel to the United States in years, is poised to ease tensions that flared earlier this year amid naval standoffs off China's coast.

Xu will meet US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday and tour a string of American bases and installations as the two militaries look to ensure dangerous past miscommunications are not repeated.The high-profile trip comes ahead of President Barack Obama's first visit to China next month since taking office.

Obama is expected to discuss US-China military ties on top of seeking Beijing's help in stemming the global financial crisis, combating climate change and bridling nuclear drives by North Korea and Iran.Experts say military relations have long lagged behind political and economic ties and note that Xu's visit comes months after a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that failed to address military issues.

Washington has expressed concern at China's military build-up and modernization, pressing for more transparency from the Asian giant on its intentions amid double-digit increases in Beijing's armed forces budget.The Pentagon chief said last month that China's increasingly advanced weaponry could undermine US military power in the Pacific, as American aircraft carriers and short-range fighter jets faced potential threats from missiles and anti-ship and anti-satellite systems.

China has boosted its conventional missile capabilities to such an extent that an attack involving Chinese short-range ballistic missiles "could cut every runway at Taiwan's fighter bases and destroy any aircraft parked in the open," a RAND Corporation report concluded in August."The problem at heart is that China's leaders are still uncomfortable with a leadership position because of what that entails in terms of responsibility," Abraham Denmark of the Center for a New American Security told AFP.

Beijing and Washington have established a military hotline but "the real test of communication is whether they will pick up the phone," noted Denmark, a former country director for China affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.Although this year's incidents between Chinese vessels and US Navy ships in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea were resolved peacefully, "setbacks in the relationship could come at anytime," warned Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There is a real gap of communication."In order to allay each other's concerns, the two countries could discuss ways to provide each other with greater "strategic reassurance," Glaser said, repeating US calls for China to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions as it positions itself on the global stage.

A long-standing Chinese demand that Washington stop selling weapons to Taiwan -- which China claims is part of its territory -- is sure to loom large during Xu's talks with Gates.Beijing cut military exchanges with Washington for months last year over a proposed 6.5-billion-dollar US arms package to Taiwan, but agreed to resume them in February.

On Monday, Xu, a vice chairman of China's central military commission, will visit the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.During his stay ending October 31, he will also tour the US Army's Fort Benning in Georgia, US Strategic Command in Nebraska, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego and US Pacific Command in Hawaii.

His trip also comes amid US worries over China's deployment of Jin-class submarines.According to Pentagon estimates, China will deploy by next year five of the submarines, which can each hold 12 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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