- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - Anti-piracy operations off Somalia are producing an unprecedented degree of cooperation, giving the American and Chinese navies a rare opportunity to work together after a recent high-profile confrontation, the chief of U.S. Naval Operations said Sunday.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Navy Adm. Gary Roughead said he would discuss further boosting ties through base visits and joint search and rescue exercises during talks this week with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Shengli.

The U.S. admiral’s visit comes amid China’s buildup of its naval prowess and after Chinese vessels last month harassed a Navy surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

Roughead and Wu were flying later Sunday to the Chinese port of Qingdao for commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

China dispatched an anti-piracy flotilla to the Gulf of Aden in December to join an international patrol contingent of some two dozen warships from countries including the U.S., Russia and members of the European Union.

Roughead said those operations have taken relations between the two militaries beyond merely bilateral exchanges, although the benefit to practical cooperation was the most significant aspect, he said.

“This is the first time we have operated together so far from China with a real-world mission,” Roughead told reporters.

Despite such ties, relations have often been rocky, with Beijing highly suspicious of close U.S. ties with other regional militaries, especially Japan.

Chinese vessels last month harassed the Navy surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in international waters in the South China Sea. China also suspended military-to-military talks for five months last year over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by Beijing as its own territory.

Roughead, however, sought to focus on the positive elements of the relationship and declined to chastise China over the Impeccable incident. He acknowledged differing interpretations of international law _ China claims the Impeccable had no right to operate within its exclusive economic zone _ but said that professionalism and the safety of all ships and their crews was of primary importance.

Beijing’s rapidly growing defense spending has drawn notice in Washington. A Pentagon report issued last month said China’s new military strength is shifting the balance in the region and could be used to force its claims to disputed territories, including Taiwan and island groups in the South China Sea.

Roughead said he was concerned more with the Chinese navy’s intentions rather than simply the growth in its arsenal, including the addition of sophisticated new nuclear submarines and quickening signs that it plans to build one or more aircraft carriers.

“How countries elect to use those capabilities … that’s what’s important,” Roughead said.

The guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald was among 20 ships from 14 nations taking part in this week’s activities in Qingdao, home to China’s Northern Fleet.

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