The United States' Pacific Commander hosted a meeting of senior military officers from throughout Asia in Hawaii last week, an event that the host, Admiral William Fallon, says made progress in addressing several issues that affect security in the region. But the admiral says participants were disappointed that China again declined to attend the annual gathering.
Admiral Fallon says the eighth annual meeting focused on four issues that cross national boundaries, maritime security, counter-terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the potential for an avian flu pandemic. He says the officials from 22 countries were seeking "common responses to some common challenges." But the admiral says there was also a broader purpose for the meeting.
"These were pretty useful topics, but I would tell you that there were some other objectives here," said Admiral Fallon. "It's an opportunity for us to get together, the only opportunity that I'm aware of, where you can get these military chiefs to sit down, get to know one another, to talk about items of common interest. The extent to which we can facilitate this kind of interaction, I think, goes a long way to getting people in a position where they feel much more comfortable dealing with one another."
In the nine months since Admiral Fallon took over the U.S. Pacific Command, which stretches from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Africa, his forces have been involved in two major humanitarian efforts - responding to the tsunami in southeast Asia and helping with earthquake relief in India. He says some operations have gone well, but others could have worked more smoothly with more advance planning and better contacts among the various military organizations involved. He says that type of planning and contact development was a key goal of the meeting, and some progress was made.
"As a result of our experiences there, we found that there are many things that could be done to get people onto common ground and potentially put us in a better position should we face these kinds of challenges, and really to build better relationships so that we can work together in those things that we are going to face that we do not even know about, for the future," added Admiral Fallon.
Admiral Fallon says no specific plans were made for dealing with future crises, but contacts were established and officials discussed the general parameters of multi-national emergency response.
But the U.S. Pacific Commander also reports that two of the region's major powers did not attend his conference - Russia and China. Russia has attended in the past and cited a scheduling conflict for its absence this year. It is sending its Far East Commander to meet with Admiral Fallon in a few weeks.
Admiral Fallon indicated China's absence was of more concern not only to him, but also to other participants at the conference, particularly coming after signs of improvements in U.S.-China military relations after his visit to China in September and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit in October.
"I invited them personally when I was over there," he said. "And for whatever reason they opted not to attend. And that was a disappointment to most of the people in the audience. That was a discussion item."
Admiral Fallon indicated that a visit by senior Chinese military officers to his command in Hawaii would help avoid potential problems of miscommunication in a future crisis, and could also demonstrate to China what U.S. officials mean when they call for more 'transparency' in China's defense program.
"It is very easy for me to pick up the telephone and speak pretty quickly with just about any of the chiefs of defense throughout the region," he noted. "We have done this on a number of occasions just since I have been here. We do not have that ability with China. It is something I think would be useful. And there are lots of other things that would be helpful in giving them an opportunity to see what we do, what our thinking is, and to demonstrate the kind of transparency that we would like to see from them."
Admiral Fallon says more such U.S.-China contacts could contribute to controlling tensions in northeast Asia, where China and Japan are contesting an off-shore oil and gas field, and where tensions between China and Taiwan have been rising.
The countries that attended the meeting at U.S. Pacific Command were Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Comoros, Fiji, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, South Korea, Timor Leste, Thailand and Tonga.