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US Pacific Commander Wants 'Candid' Talks in Beijing

The new commander of American forces in the Pacific, who arrived in Beijing Thursday night, says he wants an "open and candid" relationship with China, designed to avoid potentially dangerous miscalculations. Admiral Timothy Keating spoke to VOA on his way to China for his first visit since taking on his new job, in March. Al Pessin reports from Beijing.

During a refueling stop in Japan, Admiral Keating said he wants to get to know Chinese military and civilian leaders and to discuss a variety of security issues with them.

He says those issues will include the American desire for greater transparency in Chinese military activities; ideas for more military exchanges and joint exercises; and, perhaps, the potentially explosive issue of Taiwan.

"It is likely they will always have a somewhat different perspective on things; but, the more time we spend together the stronger partnership will develop and the less likely a misunderstanding could brew that might grow to disrupt the peace and stability that we're looking to sustain and actually nurture," Admiral Keating said.

One potential misunderstanding involves the view in some countries that the substantial U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have left a weakened force in other parts of the world.

"We are committed, to a degree, in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "That is imposing some stress on the force, to be sure. But we retain significant capability in the Pacific and all throughout the other geographic combatant commands. And, I suppose that's a worthwhile message. Don't for a second assume that our focus is entirely on a certain part of the world."

At the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, former senior U.S. diplomat Raymond Burkhardt says misunderstandings caused two major wars in Asia in the 20th Century and that talks like Admiral Keating's are important in avoiding that in the future.

"Having interaction with the Chinese military, to invite them to witness exercises, to visit American facilities," Burkhardt said. "A lot of that, frankly, is to show the Chinese the capabilities we have, to make sure there aren't miscalculations, a misjudgment that the U.S. would not be able to take certain kinds of actions."

Burkhardt says the need for clarity in U.S.-China military relations is particularly acute, with China sharply increasing its military capability every year. China recently announced an 18 percent increase in its defense budget - the 15th consecutive double-digit increase - and U.S. officials believe the actual budget is much larger than the official figure of $45 billion.

But another East-West Center expert, Christopher McNally, says China is not looking for a fight.

"The Chinese are very intent to become a major world power, but not to do that by getting into conflict with the United States," he said. "In other words, they would like to avoid at all costs potential conflict with the United States, with one exception of Taiwan."

McNally and Burkhardt say Taiwan is the one issue that could spark a Sino-American military confrontation in the short term - if the island moved for independence or if China moved to re-take it through force.

McNally says, to have a chance in a fight over Taiwan, China is expanding its capabilities in military fields the United States does not totally dominate, including some conventional areas like submarine warfare and new ones like space and cyber-space.

"If one talks to Chinese defense analysts, much in their thinking about military doctrine seems to be predicated upon a view of the United States as not trustworthy and, therefore [that they], need to 'buy an insurance policy,' but not one that in and of itself would trigger an arms race or some sort of Cold War, which the Chinese themselves realize they couldn't afford," he said.

The analysts also point out that U.S.-China relations are developing in many areas, including trade, people-to-people contacts and diplomatic cooperation on North Korea and other issues.

But former American diplomat Raymond Burkhardt says both sides have to understand the relationship will not always be smooth.

"It's important to, frankly, recognize that the Sino-U.S. relationship is a competitive one; that it is one that involves both strategic competition as well as many, many areas of very useful cooperation. And, we have to accept that somewhat complicated mixture," he said.

The Pacific commander, Admiral Keating, agrees with that. In the VOA interview, he said Sino-American relations are developing on many tracks and that it is his job to promote openness on the security track.

"We're going to be open and candid and forthright. [I] expect the same from them," he said. "And it is in the hope of that sort of discussion that we're going. And I'm confident that we're going to enjoy that sort of candid, open discussion."

During his five-day visit, Admiral Keating is to meet with senior military and civilian leaders, Chinese military scholars and students at the Chinese army's university. He will also visit China's eastern regional command in Nanjing, which has responsibility for the part of China directly across the narrow straits from Taiwan.