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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Absence Of US-China Military Dialogue Triggers Worries In US

Washington (AFP): Despite years of cajoling, China is hesitant to have a defense dialogue with the United States, fuelling fears in Washington of the prospect of a conflict as the Asian giant flexes its military muscle. Sixteen months after former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a landmark visit to Beijing, Washington is still awaiting a promised return visit from the commander of the People's Liberation Army's powerful Second Artillery Corps.

Beijing also has not moved to implement long fostered plans to have a military hotline between the two powers.

When a US surveillance plane and Chinese fighter collided in 2001, Beijing waited about three days before providing a clear response to Washington's desperate pleas for information after the deadly incident.

Six years later, the situation has little changed.

The Americans are still awaiting an official explanation from Beijing for firing a satellite-killing missile on January 11, which was only confirmed by the Chinese 12 days after the test, following international condemnation.

The anti-satellite strike and a widely reported stalking of a US aircraft carrier by a Chinese submarine in the South China Sea in November showed Beijing has "assumed a more confident and increasingly assertive posture," said Richard Lawless, a senior Pentagon official who handles Asia policy.

The fact that the anti-satellite test occurred in the absence of a strong bilateral military dialogue "is all the more concerning," he said.

"We just simply are not being allowed to develop the quality of discussion that we need to have with them in these critical areas, especially areas where miscalculation is possible," Lawless, the deputy undersecretary of defense, told a recent forum of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

He warned of the possibility of "additional miscalculations and misunderstandings" in the near future as Chinese capabilities continue to increase and as they "project themselves further out into the environment." US-China military ties chilled in 2001 following a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane that killed the Chinese jet pilot. Beijing infuriated Washington by holding the spy crew for 11 days.

Relations improved but not to a stage where the military brass could just pick up the phone and speak to their counterparts when a security crisis erupts.

The relationship "is a fragile accommodation for the United States, fraught with uncertainty about China's true intentions," said Democratic lawmaker Carl Levin, who heads the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

Despite saying it favours export controls, China is moving at a slow pace to establish its own regime to prevent proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, he said.

In addition, Beijing's surprise anti-satellite weapon test raises "questions about whether they are indeed -- contrary to their protestations -- pursuing the weaponization of space," Levin said amid persistent US concerns about the Asian giant's obvious military build-up.

Officials in Beijing have often emphasized China's wish for a "peaceful rise," saying it has never really been an aggressor internationally.

But Washington has not been swayed by the assurances.

Last April, concerned about China's beefing up of its strategic missile forces, President George W. Bush raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart President Hu Jintao and they agreed to initiate a dialogue on strategic nuclear policy, doctrine and strategy, officials said.

As a first step, the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) wanted to host the Commander of the PLA's Second Artillery Corps, which Rumsfeld visited in October 2005, but to no avail, they said.

"We are anxiously awaiting that return visit, but it takes two to tango in this case, and we really need to get this dialogue going and get it going seriously," Lawless said.

It "shows our intent to open the subject for discussion in a very sensitive area and an area that's only going to become more sensitive in the years ahead," he said.

There has also been no breakthrough in Washington's moves since 2004 to establish a defense telephone link between the military leaderships "to support senior level communications in the event of a crisis." Even existing military-to-military exchanges continue to be problematic, said Thomas Ehrhard, a retired US Air Force colonel.

He cited as an example a visit to the Air War College by Chinese Air Force officials last September which he said resulted in "very little candid discussion from the Chinese.

"Chinese delegations are still heavily briefed on standard responses and are accompanied by political chaperones who restrict candor," said Ehrhard, now an analyst with the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
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