HONOLULU — The commander of U.S. forces in Asia says he pressed Chinese leaders on a recent visit to explain the intentions behind their expanding military power, thus injecting a fresh element into security relations between the two countries.
Until now, U.S. political and military leaders have insisted that Chinese leaders be more “transparent” in their military activity — disclosing what weapons and equipment they have acquired, how much they have spent on their armed forces and the state of training and readiness of those forces.
But Adm. Timothy Keating said in an interview that transparency “is not enough.”
“We don’t want just transparency, we want to understand their intentions. There’s a big difference,” he said. “That’s a much more aggressive position for us to ask of them.”
Adm. Keating, who was in China last month, said he turned down several Chinese invitations to see airfields and ships so he could talk with Chinese leaders and seek a better “comprehension of intentions.”
“We used that word [intentions] in every meeting we had,” he said.
China has acquired sufficient forces to attack Taiwan, the self-governing island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Even so, the mainland has continued to build a force capable of striking out into the Pacific and other parts of Asia.
Adm. Keating’s emphasis on Chinese intentions was reinforced in Washington this week by the new chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, the former Pacific Fleet commander and Adm. Keating’s subordinate.
Adm. Roughead told reporters that China’s navy has become more capable but “the question always comes down to what’s their intent. … That’s why I am a proponent of being able to engage the leadership of the [Chinese] navy to get a better sense of what they are about.”
Adm. Keating, who in his year as Pacific commander has made two trips to China and received Chinese leaders in Honolulu, said the question was: “Where does China expect to be and where do they want to be in 25 years? I believe they have a long view, but I don’t know what it is.”
He said his reception by the Chinese on his second trip was markedly different from the first. The atmosphere during his first trip, in May, was “chilly” and Chinese leaders were “more didactic, more preachy and a little more brittle.”
On his latest trip, he found Chinese leaders “warmer, more collegial, friendly,” he said.
“There was more willingness to listen to a different perspective, a U.S. military perspective, an issue that has implications for strategic relations between [China] and the U.S.”
An underlying message, however, has not changed, Adm. Keating said. A predecessor, Adm. Dennis Blair, told a congressional committee in Washington in 1999 that he was trying to reassure the Chinese by asserting that his command was not planning to attack China, or contain China, or pick a fight with China.
The other half of that message, Adm. Blair said, was to warn the Chinese: “Don’t mess with us.”
Adm. Keating picked up on that point forcefully, saying, “It’s still the message.”
Adm. Keating said he told Chinese leaders, “We don’t want to engage you in kinetic military activity.”
At the same time, he cautioned them, “We’re fully prepared to, we’re trained to, we’re ready to, and we want everybody to understand that we’re not going to lose.”