- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

SHENYANG, China — A top American admiral said yesterday he has invited Chinese commanders to observe a U.S. military exercise next month in a confidence-building step meant to encourage political leaders on both sides to improve military relations.

Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces, said that in a week of talks, Chinese military officials expressed interest in closer ties and dismay at a Pentagon report this year that called Beijing a potential threat.

“They’re looking for constructive engagement and so am I,” Adm. Fallon said at the end of a four-city tour. “Now that we’ve agreed to the principle, let’s move on the details.”

Adm. Fallon’s invitation and the reception he received follow years of generally suspicious relations between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, particularly since a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane off southern China in 2001.

Adm. Fallon said he had asked Chinese commanders to help build a “track record of confidence” that he could use in lobbying Congress to ease legal restrictions on military contacts. A 2000 law limits U.S. cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army to humanitarian, disaster relief and other non-warfare activities.

Adm. Fallon said he doesn’t routinely talk with his Chinese counterparts, though he described U.S.-Chinese relations as the most important issue in the Asia-Pacific region. By contrast, he said, he talked with four commanders from other Asian countries over the past week.

“We need to have confidence in the political leadership to allow these things to go on,” he said.

The Bush administration has called for closer military ties with Beijing. But the issue is still contentious in Washington, with officials including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld questioning Beijing’s intentions and its willingness to reciprocate with gestures such as allowing visits to sensitive facilities.

U.S. critics of the military exchange program say the goal of trying to influence Chinese military behavior has not been a success, and that China mainly sends intelligence officers on exchanges in search of war-fighting data.

“I am extremely alarmed that this administration is going down the same perilous path with China that has been done before and with disastrous results,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.

“China is only interested in obtaining more intelligence about our capabilities in order to exploit it for their military and political advantage,” he said.

Adm. Fallon said he had invited Chinese military officers to watch the Guam exercises from aboard a U.S. warship June 17-19.

He said he told Chinese officials that Washington hoped for similar invitations in return. He said he cited the example of massive war games held last year by China and Russia on their east coasts.

During his trip, the admiral met with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Defense Minster Cao Gangchuan and regional commanders in the cities of Xi’an in the west, Shenyang in the northeast and Hangzhou on the east coast.

He was the first U.S. official allowed to visit China’s 39th Infantry Regiment south of Shenyang near the North Korean border.

Staff writer Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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