Pacific commander aims to expand contacts with China
The Asian power will miss a defense chiefs forum to be held this week in Honolulu
The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific can pick up the phone and call military leaders in dozens of countries scattered around the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Adm. William Fallon wants that to change, improving military contacts between the world's sole superpower and the up-and-coming Asian power.
"I try to make it a point that I'm here to open a dialogue," Fallon said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "We've had very, very little dialogue between the Chinese military and our military for a number of reasons for a lot of years. So I believe there is a lot of distrust, a lot of fear of the unknown."
Fallon spoke a few days before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew to Beijing for meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders last week. While voicing concerns about China's rapid military buildup, Rumsfeld also agreed with his counterparts to increase educational military exchanges.
As the U.S. commander overseeing the Asia-Pacific region, Fallon will be at the forefront of developing these contacts. He said he aimed to involve younger officers in the effort. He added that he hoped China would participate in multilateral military meetings regularly held among other nations in the region, like the Asia-Pacific Chiefs of Defense meeting to be held in Honolulu this week.
Fallon has taken some initial steps in developing relations with China's military since becoming head of the U.S. Pacific Command in February.
Last month he traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where he met with Chinese military officials and saw facilities never before visited by foreigners. A few months earlier, he hosted a senior Chinese military leader at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii.
Fallon said he was eager to go back and happy to invite his Chinese counterparts to return to the United States.
"I want to expand this to below the level of old guys and gray hair," Fallon said. "I want to get this down so we have more exchanges at the working level, because that's where the future will be. The senior people will be out of here before too long. People coming from behind us need to have that exposure."
Fallon recalled how he telephoned his Indian counterpart after this month's magnitude-7.6 earthquake in South Asia and asked how he could help with the relief effort. He said similar access to Chinese officials would be useful "for a host of reasons, the least of which would be natural disasters."
There are also opportunities in the multilateral regional forums sponsored by the United States and other nations.
One will be held this week, when the chiefs of defense from around the Pacific are due to gather in Honolulu for informal talks.
Regrettably, Fallon said, China has declined so far to attend this meeting. (Nor is Taiwan attending.)
Fallon said these venues offer great opportunities for leaders to get to know one another and speak their minds, enabling them to overcome friction and find solutions to problems.
"China has yet to become a member of this kind of discourse. We want to encourage them to do it," Fallon said.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, said the U.S. effort to develop military contacts with China was "long overdue."
He said that it was critical for militaries to understand one another and to be able to talk to each other during a potential or real crisis so they do not overreact.
Cossa said nations across the Asia-Pacific would likely benefit.
"People in the region are always nervous when the U.S. and China are at odds. There's the old saying that 'When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.' And that's a saying you hear quite frequently in Southeast Asia because they consider themselves to be the grass," Cossa said. "So to the extent that the elephants are not fighting, they feel happy."
Cossa said there was little danger that efforts to develop ties would lull the United States into overlooking any threat posed by China as it builds up its military.