The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific region said Thursday that recent Chinese actions have confused him about that country's strategic intentions and he called for a resumption of military exchanges to help clear up the issue.
U.S. Navy Admiral Timothy Keating told the Senate Armed Services Committee he wants China to end the freeze in military contacts it imposed after a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan last October.
Keating said that is the only way to work through incidents such as the one last week, when five Chinese ships harassed and endangered the U.S. Navy research vessel Impeccable in international waters in the South China Sea.
"The Impeccable incident is certainly a troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road," he said.
But at the same time, Keating noted that China is cooperating with the international naval task force led by the United States to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the east coast of Africa. The admiral said the two types of Chinese behavior are confusing.
"It's conflicting to us and it's confusing. And this goes to the root issue of what are, really, their intentions. What is their strategic intent? Where does China expect to be 10, 20, 50 years from now?" He asked.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hopes the Impeccable incident will not be repeated and that diplomatic contacts that followed will improve relations.
"One of the concerns that I have about Impeccable is that my impression was that the military-to-military relationship was steadily improving. And I would like to see us put this behind us, not have another incident like it and continue that improvement in the relationship," he said.
But at Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Admiral Keating said that recent disagreements have stalled what he called "real headway" made in U.S.-China military relations early last year. He said the Impeccable incident, the freeze in military relations and other recent Chinese actions indicate that the bilateral military relationship is far from where he would like it to be.
"Those are vivid reminders that a mature, constructive mil-to-mil relationship is hardly the reality today and the PRC's behavior as a responsible stakeholder has yet to be consistently demonstrated," he added.
Admiral Keating also said tensions have eased across the Taiwan Strait, thanks in large part to more moderate policies adopted by the island's new president. But the admiral said he is concerned about China's growing military capability, even though he said it is still far behind that of the United States. And he said he has seen no sign that the global economic downturn, which is having a significant impact in China, will slow the country's military modernization program.