Senior U.S. and Chinese military commanders sharply disagreed Friday on the impact of China's anti-satellite weapon test in January. The exchange came during a meeting in Beijing between the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and the vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin attended the meeting and later interviewed the U.S. commander about the first day of his first visit to China in his new job.
The American commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, told Chinese General Guo Boxiong many people do not understand why China would test an anti-satellite weapon if it truly wants a peaceful rise to superpower status, as it claims. The admiral said the test, in which China used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites, sent a "confusing signal" to the United States and the world.
Later, in a VOA interview, Admiral Keating said he hopes China does not pursue its anti-satellite weapon program.
"I'd hope that once demonstrated that they, 'put it on the shelf,'" he said. "There's little further scientific data to be derived, in my perspective. They could have done it in the laboratory, if you will. But, it's done and the debris is there. We can't unring the bell. And I would hope that they now understand, we all understand, the challenges attendant to introduction of large quantities of large debris into the commons of space."
When Admiral Keating raised the anti-satellite weapon issue during his meeting with General Guo, the general chuckled and said he does not understand why the world reaction to the Chinese anti-satellite missile test has been so "dramatic." He called the test a normal scientific experiment that had no serious consequences or ulterior motives, and didn't threaten any country. General Guo disputed the view that the test left a large amount of debris in orbit.
When General Guo tried to change the subject to Taiwan, Admiral Keating insisted on sticking to the anti-satellite issue for a few more minutes, saying some people in the U.S. military, government and business community believe the test was more than a scientific experiment and that the risk to other satellites posed by the debris is "not insignificant."
He added this in the VOA interview.
"The explanation provided, that it was a scientific endeavor, in my view is a partially complete answer," Admiral Keating explained. "There are, in my opinion, military overtones to this, if not direct military application."
When the two senior officers did turn to Taiwan, General Guo warned the United States not to trust assurances by leaders on the island that they will not try to declare themselves an independent government, and not to encourage them to do so.
Admiral Keating said the United States recognizes that there is only one China, but he also noted that the United States is committed to help Taiwan defend itself against any attack. He said he is concerned that a series of misunderstandings, possibly fueled by rhetoric during the campaign for Taiwan's coming election, could lead to what he called a situation neither China nor the United States wants.
To avoid that, Admiral Keating called for more U.S.-China military contacts at the leadership level, and also at lower ranks. In the VOA interview, he said that will help lead to better understanding of each country's strategic intentions, and also to more transparency in China's military, which senior U.S. officials have been wanting for years, as China has dramatically increased its defense spending and capability.
"We're all for transparency, but I don't think it's sufficient," he said. "The notion of transparency means we're watching and we can see through certain things. I would rather we engage, and we look each other in the eye and talk, more than just watch."
On Friday, Admiral Keating also met with China's military chief of staff and the vice foreign minister responsible for North American affairs. Over lunch, he had a long discussion with a Chinese admiral about the possibility that China might develop aircraft carriers.
As his five-day visit continues, Admiral Keating will meet with Chinese military scholars and students, and will visit the eastern military region, directly across the straits from Taiwan.