January 29, 2008— Compared to his first trip to China in May 2007, Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command, said this month’s visit to Beijing was downright enjoyable.
“It was a good visit,” he told the Defense Writers Group yesterday. “It was harder the first time. It was more pleasant this time.”
Indeed at times, Keating described the atmosphere as “almost convivial” with some of the senior Chinese military and foreign ministry officials, especially those whom he previously knew.
The Chinese brought up the topic of Taiwan at every meeting, but with one exception, “it was less a sermon, less confrontational, less tense, and more kind of a frank discussion,” he said.
But the relationship still has a long ways to go, Keating acknowledged. For all of the pleasant exchanges, the top US military official in the Pacific walked away from the trip still not knowing why the Chinese refused, at the last minute, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk entry to Hong Kong harbor last November for the Thanksgiving holiday. Nor does he know why they denied two US minesweepers seeking to avoid bad storms and refuel the rights to enter the same harbor in a separate incident that same month.
“They did not give me an official explanation,” Keating said of the Kitty Hawk incident. Nor did they offer an apology, he added, noting, however that the US delegation did not press the issue and instead sought to move past it. The Chinese, he said, seemed to want to avoid confrontation and do the same.
He also returned to his headquarters in Hawaii with the same limited insights into why the Chinese launched an anti-satellite weapon into space a little more than one year ago, obliterating a Chinese weather satellite and sending thousands of pieces of debris into orbit. That debris poses a lingering danger to satellites in low Earth orbit.
The lack of insights offered by the Chinese into their activities as they expand their military and modernize it remains troubling, Keating said. Accordingly, the current US thrust continues to be delivering the message to the Chinese that it lies in their own interests to be less secretive about their military, he said.
“The point we emphasized back to the PRC was it is not us versus you,” said the admiral, who has been in his post since March 2007. “But don’t make any mistake about it. We need to understand better your intention.”
“We’d like you to be more transparent lest this uncertainty lead to confusion, which could lead to crisis which could lead to conflict,” he continued. “We could prevent all of that by reducing this gap in transparency and comprehension of intention.”
For example, he said, some aspects of the Chinese military buildup are not consistent with China’s declared defense policy.
“The Chinese told us on the first trip, ‘We only want to protect the things that are ours,’” he said.
While the development of a blue ocean navy is understandable given a nation’s need to protect its vital sea lanes, activities such as the ASAT test and the pursuit of advanced area-denial weapons and the “bristling number” of surface-to-surface missiles aimed at Taiwan are not, he said.
“We have seen the deployment of weapons systems throughout China, including across the Taiwan Strait, that are reason for heightened interest,” he said.
“We are concerned about the development of systems, about training we see them conducting, and about techniques and procedures that indicate more than just a desire to protect ‘what is ours,’” he continued. “So we stressed time after time after time, meeting after meeting after meeting, transparency is important, but it is just a step. We are as interested as we can be in understanding why it is you are doing things.”
Being recognized as a member of the world’s “harmonious civilization,” to borrow the Chinese phrase, requires that a nation act responsibly, Keating said.
“There are rules—some written, some unwritten,” he said. “You have to abide by those rules or you will not be regarded as a responsible stakeholder.”
For example, denying the minesweepers refuge was wrong, he said.
“It is just an unwritten law of the sea that if somebody needs help, you say, ‘Of course. What can I do?’” Keating explained. “Now you may not give them the keys to the city, but you let them come in, get out of the weather, give them some gas and send them on their way.”
And Keating said the argument that the United States did not follow the established procedures for the Kitty Hawk to gain entry to Hong Kong harbor is “nonsense.”
“We have been going there for decades,” he said. “We know the procedures. We follow them every time.”
In fairness to the Chinese, Keating said there were about 40 US Navy ships that made ports of call to Hong Kong in 2007. It was just the manner in which China refused entry to the Kitty Hawk and minesweepers—again with no insight as to why—that raises the concern.
Keating also reasserted that the United States is not trying to encircle China militarily in combination with friends and allies.
“We are working hard to disabuse them of that notion,” he said, noting that PACOM has invited the Chinese military to participate “in all manner of exercises” and send their senior officers, mid-grade officers, and senior enlisted personnel to US war colleges and military academies.
Keating said he hopes that promoting greater openness will be the main topic of discussion the next time he meets with his Chinese counterparts sometime after the conclusion of the August Olympics that China is hosting.
“We are hopeful,” he said. “We are optimistic. We saw nothing to disabuse us of the notion that this is being at least considered and they will chew on it because it is a pretty big step for them. I don’t expect to see overnight a dramatic change. It just doesn’t happen that way there.”
And all signs are not bad today, Keating said.
The USS Blue Ridge, command ship of 7th fleet, is currently docking at Hong Kong, the first ship to visit there since the Kitty Hawk and minesweeper incidents. Further, the next meeting with the Chinese to discuss the establishment of the telephone hotline between PACOM headquarters and the Chinese military counterpart is scheduled in mid February.
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