The top U.S. military officer says the United States will continue its leadership role in Asia, and insists on access to all international waters in the region, but also wants to deepen its military relations with China. Leaders in Beijing have expressed concern about longstanding U.S. naval operations in the Western Pacific, calling some of them a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Admiral Mike Mullen told an event at the Center for American Progress the United States wants closer military relations with China in order to promote stability, avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict and jointly address regional and global issues. But he also made clear the United States does not intend to change the way its military operates in the Western Pacific.
"Certainly the intent on the part of the United States is to continue to have this presence," said Admiral Mullen. "I mean, it goes back to literally 60 years of stability. And from a national interests, vital national interests, standpoint we are very much tied to that region and to the stability that's there. It is clear as well that that is not always seen in a positive way from the Chinese perspective, and even more so on the [Chinese] military side."
Admiral Mullen said the U.S. Navy's presence in the Western Pacific, and its role in securing the region's international waterways, have helped China build its international trade, a key engine of its rapid economic growth in recent decades.
The admiral said the two countries need a strong military relationship to work their way through disputes. U.S. officials have frequently lamented that China cuts the military relationship from time to time in retaliation for U.S. actions it does not like, such as an arms sale to Taiwan. China only recently agreed to resume military contacts after the latest eight-month-long freeze.
The relationship has also been hurt by confrontations at sea between U.S. Navy ships and Chinese vessels, related to different views of the size of China's exclusive economic zone, and what that term means for access by ships from other countries. In addition, China said U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and China, would hurt its interests and threaten its sovereignty. But the exercises were held this week without incident.
Admiral Mullen challenged China to play what he called a "responsible" role in Asia by, among other things, pressuring North Korea to stop attacking South Korea, as it has twice in recent months.
He also laid out what he sees as the key factors as the U.S.-China military relationship resumes, in part through talks next week at the Pentagon. He said leaders on both sides need to set the right tone, including recognition of each country's accomplishments, challenges and goals. He urged cooperation on both regional and global issues. And he called on the two militaries to identify a series of long-term goals to pursue together, and not to allow their relationship to be derailed by short-term considerations.
"I believe that our dialogue needs to keep pace," said Mullen. "It needs to move from working out the particular issues and conditions of our bilateral relationship, to working together to meet broader, and common, goals that we share. All too often, short term thinking wins out over the long term view."
The admiral said that sort of approach to U.S.-China military relations would more closely resemble the bi-lateral political and economic relationship.