- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

HONOLULU | The U.S. Pacific Command has opened a new channel of communications with the People´s Liberation Army of China — a diplomatic liaison with senior noncommissioned officers.

The exchange comes at a time of deteriorating U.S.-Russia military relations but was planned months ago. U.S. officials are loath to imply any connection between the two developments.

The Sino-U.S. exchange marked the first use of noncommissioned officers in a diplomatic role, said Chief Master Sgt. James Roy of the Air Force.

Sgt. Roy led the delegation of 16 senior NCOs to China and is preparing to receive a Chinese delegation in a reciprocal visit to U.S. forces in Hawaii this fall.

“We went to understand them better and to have them understand us,” he said in an interview.

“We did not go to help them to build capacity.”

U.S. military officials said the effort has two goals: to deter China from confronting the U.S. with armed force and to reassure the Chinese that the U.S. is not seeking to contain their nation.

NCOs — enlisted service members who rise through the ranks — are responsible for the day-to-day care, feeding, training and work of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Like foremen, they are charged with getting work accomplished and are considered the backbone of the U.S. armed forces.

U.S. military exchanges with China have been criticized by neoconservatives and others who warn that China uses the visits to upgrade its forces.

As a result, Sino-U.S. military relations have traveled a bumpy road for years.

The exchanges have increased in the final months of the Bush administration, apparently following a tone set by Adm. Dennis Blair, who led the Pacific Command in 1999.

In testimony before Congress, Adm. Blair said that U.S. military leaders sought to make two points to the Chinese:

“We’re not sitting here planning to contain China. We’re not sitting here dying to pick a fight with China. We basically are an armed force in a democratic society who will fight if we must but prefer not to. And we’ll support American interests if we have to, but don’t mess with us.”

“We are very aware in our program of not giving away more than we get from these exchanges. We’re not doing it to be nice guys. We’re doing it to get our job done, of teaching the Chinese what sort of capability we have out there.”

Plans for U.S. military contacts with China contrast with deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow on both military and diplomatic fronts.

Russia announced Thursday that it had tested an intercontinental missile.

“The launch was specially tasked to test the missile’s capability to avoid ground-based detection systems,” Col. Alexander Vovk of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces told reporters, according to wire service dispatches from Moscow.

The test was conducted a week after the U.S. and Poland signed a deal to base part of a missile defense system in Poland over objections from Russia, and as tensions between Washington and Moscow heightened over Russia’s intervention in Georgia.

In recent years, several U.S. secretaries of defense and top military officers have visited China and received their counterparts in Washington.

A large part of the military exchange has fallen to the Pacific Command based in Honolulu.

Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Pacific Command from February 2005 to March 2007, went to China three times. The current commander, Adm. Timothy Keating, has made one visit and likely will go to China again next year.

Senior Chinese officers have visited the command´s headquarters in Honolulu and bases on the U.S. mainland.

In addition, exchanges of middle-grade commissioned officers, those who will lead their respective services in the next 10 or 15 years, have begun.

Now the senior NCOs have been tasked to gauge the quality of Chinese NCOs and to impress the Chinese with U.S. training and experience.

The People’s Liberation Army, having been an unschooled force that relied on human-wave tactics since the 1950-53 Korean War, has begun to develop qualified NCOs.

Chinese leaders, a Pentagon report said in March, are concerned that “low education levels in the PLA negatively affect its operating capability and professionalism.”

While the American delegation was in China on their initial visit, the noncommissioned officers engaged in discussions during the week mostly with Chinese officers, not with NCOs, and toured bases in the Nanjing military district on the central coast of China.

The Chinese, Sgt. Roy said, asked “very few stray questions. They had a good idea of why we were there.”

Even so, the American concept of a noncommissioned officer corps puzzled the Chinese.

“The Chinese do not yet understand the role of the senior NCO in the U.S. military service,” Sgt. Roy said.

Pointing to the chevrons on his sleeve, he said: “They did not understand that a chief master sergeant as the senior enlisted leader of the Pacific Command is not a commander.

“I thought it was a very good dialogue. They invited us back, and we expect them to come here on a reciprocal visit. It needs to go both ways.”

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