- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006


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.

U.S. frankness

Adm. Fallon instructed American officers to set an example by providing complete and honest answers to the Chinese without divulging secrets.

U.S. military leaders have long complained that the Chinese lack transparency in everything from military spending to troop training.

The Chinese were briefed at the Pacific Command headquarters, the Pacific Air Force and Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii and the Army’s command post in Alaska, a five-hour flight from Honolulu. American officers said the Chinese were surprised by the vast area that the Pacific Command oversees.

U.S. officers said they were ready to respond to Chinese questions about strategy but found the Chinese unprepared to discuss issues at that level.

Instead, they focused on tactical questions, such as how long it takes to begin moving a brigade — 18 hours — and how an American colonel controls his brigade.

The Chinese dined with American soldiers in Alaska and found the two- and three-man rooms in a new barracks to be far more comfortable than the spartan facilities in China.

They went on a shopping spree at the Pearl Harbor base exchange and bought out the inventory of Chanel No. 5 perfume.

“If you go to China and catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5,” said an American officer, “that’s probably a PLA wife.”

When the Chinese arrived, Adm. Fallon said, “they were full of propaganda” about how the United States was seeking to surround and contain China.

Stunning lessons

American officers said they thought they convinced the Chinese that the United States intends China no harm, but would use military power if necessary to defend U.S. interests.

“We think they went away with a good balance,” said one.

Chinese personnel specialists were curious about American military pay. When told that an American colonel earns $11,540 in pay and allowances, a Chinese said: “That’s a year, right?”

“No,” replied his American counterpart, “that’s a month.” The Chinese was stunned.

The Chinese were taken to the USS Arizona Memorial above the battleship sunk by Japan in its surprise attack of December 7, 1941, which brought the United States into World War II. The ship still rests at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, reflecting perhaps the greatest military disaster in U.S. history.

About 200 yards downstream floats the USS Missouri, where the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, at the end of World War II. It reflects the triumph of American arms.

U.S. officers said they thought the Chinese had received the message: “You do bad stuff to us, and bad stuff happens to you.”

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