News / Asia

US Pacific Commander Sees Challenges in Chinese Military, North Korea

David Dyar

The top U.S. commander for Asia and the Pacific, Navy Admiral Robert Willard, says a growing and assertive Chinese military presents a challenge for the United States and its regional partners. Willard heads U.S. Pacific Command. He briefed reporters this week on security challenges in the Pacific region, which he says include an unstable government in North Korea.

Admiral Willard says Chinese military expansion has been dramatic, especially during the past decade, and that the United States wants to engage Chinese military officials in areas of joint interest. "My charter is to enhance the military relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China, and to the extent that we can, to see the People's Liberation Army service components enter into the region as a constructive partner.  We are having limited success in military engagement with the Chinese. "
China suspended military-to-military exchanges with the United States early this year in response to an announcement in January of a $6.4 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended the sale at a security conference in Singapore last month.  He noted the recent buildup of Chinese cruise and ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, and said the military sale is in accordance with U.S. law and serves to keep the peace in the region.  Gates said the United States does not support independence for Taiwan, which China views as a renegade territory.  A senior Chinese general at the conference, however, blamed the United States for the chill in military relations.  

In San Diego, Admiral Willard contrasted what he called the sophistication and maturity of the dialogue with China's civilian leadership to the reluctance of the country's military to engage in exchanges.  Willard notes that China has separate lines of authority for its military command and civilian government, although the lines meet at the top in the person of President Hu Jintao, who heads both the military and civilian branches.  Still, Willard says, the branches are largely separate.

"And to the extent that there are two Chinas that we're viewing, the People's Liberation Army on one side and the very sophisticated civilian side among their ministries, then it should be a concern, I believe, inside China, but also a concern for the region and for the United States with regard to that apparatus and how effective it will be, given the growth in military capability and capacity that we have witnessed over these past years."

Willard says U.S. and Chinese officials agree on the importance of cooperation in areas such as disaster response, countering piracy and peacekeeping.  He notes that China was involved in relief efforts in Haiti and has plans for humanitarian work in the Pacific, work that the U.S. military also engages in.  He says expanded military-to-military exchanges would benefit both sides and could lead to productive discussions over disagreements.

Willard says U.S. officials are monitoring recent confrontations between Chinese authorities and foreign vessels in the East and South China Seas, where he says the Chinese military has become increasingly assertive in enforcing China's claims to disputed territories such as Paracel, Spratly and Senkaku Islands.

With regard to the Korean Penninsula, Willard says the United States is finalizing plans for military exercises with South Korea, following the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March.  The ship is widely believed to have been struck by a North Korean torpedo, although Pyongyang denies any role in the sinking.  

Willard says U.S. officials assume that little happens in North Korea without approval of the government, and that they believe the attack was an effort by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il to assert his authority.  Willard notes that Mr. Kim is believed to be in poor health and that he has named a son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.  "Succession tends to bring provocations with it as they attempt to shore up, in this case, his son's reputation and authority over the military and the North Korean regime," he said.

The American commander says U.S. officials are working with their Asian counterparts on other security issues, including transnational terrorism.  He says that is also an area in which China and the United States share a common interest.  

There might be hints of a possible thaw in military relations between the two countries.  The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that a senior Chinese military official says Defense Secretary Gates is welcome to visit China at what the official termed "an appropriate time."

U.S. officials say Gates had hoped to visit Beijing when he was in Asia in June, but Chinese officials withdrew their invitation in response to the Taiwan arms sale.

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