The United States Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China quietly have begun an exchange of military officers intended to reduce the chances of a miscalculation leading to hostilities between the established power in the Pacific and the rising power of East Asia.
A delegation of 20 senior Chinese officers visited Hawaii in November, where the Pacific Command has its headquarters, and Alaska, which is within the command’s area of responsibility. A group of Chinese military personnel specialists arrived in January. American military officers are scheduled to go to China next month.
The commander of the Pacific Command, Adm. William J. Fallon, said this has been a “significant engagement.” Most U.S. military exchanges with China were cut off in 1989 after Chinese troops killed large numbers of Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.
Military exchanges with China resumed during the administration of President Clinton in the 1990s but involved mostly senior defense officials and military officers.
China Sea incident
After President Bush came to office in 2001, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a review of the entire program.
Nearly all contacts stopped in April that year after a Chinese fighter pilot clipped a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese plane spiraled into the sea while the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island.
Since then, senior officials of the Bush administration have been skeptical of renewing military exchanges with China, arguing that they do not benefit the United States. Many military officers, however, contend that well-done exchanges would deter conflict when the Chinese learn U.S. capabilities and intentions.
Adm. Fallon said the Chinese officers in the current exchanges — the first operational officers representing the next generation of military leaders to come to America — arrived with “a very high desire to learn.”
A U.S. staff officer who dealt with the Chinese visitors said, “They didn’t know anything about America except what they learned from Hollywood.”
American officers said they think they were able to correct some mistaken impressions.
The first group of 20 Chinese officers, led by Maj. Gen. Zhang Wenda, a deputy chief of the general staff, was divided equally between line officers who train and lead soldiers and political commissars who monitor the Chinese forces.
The officers were mostly one-star brigadier generals, but their responsibilities, as brigade commanders for instance, were similar to those of American colonels, one grade below. Each Chinese was paired with an American, five of whom spoke Chinese, through the weeklong stay. Four of the Chinese officers spoke English.