- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

Beijing’s top military leader on Monday called for U.S. forces to halt joint naval exercises with China’s neighbors in the South China Sea and issued a string of complaints about U.S. policy after meeting his U.S. counterpart.

“It’s not a proper time for the United States to conduct military drills in the region with the Philippines and Vietnam,” said Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army during a news briefing with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Chen also criticized U.S. military spending and economic policies in unusually candid remarks.

Adm. Mullen, in response, defended the exercises as small in scale and not related to growing tensions between China and regional states over the resource-rich South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping territorial claims.

U.S. forces last week conducted joint naval exercises in the strategically vital waters with Japan and Australia, and last month held similar drills nearby with the Philippines navy. U.S. naval forces also are scheduled to visit Vietnam at the end of this week for joint activities that officials from both countries have sought to avoid calling a military exercise.

“The timing of these joint exercises is inappropriate as we see it,” Gen. Chen said. “If the United States truly wants peace and stability in the region, it should adjust the schedule of its military drills.”

Since May, Vietnam has twice accused Chinese vessels of harassing its oil and gas survey ships, in one case cutting cables used by one of the ships. In turn, China charged that one of its fishing boats was chased by armed Vietnamese ships last month.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino recently accused China of inciting at least seven incidents with its ships in contested waters, including one involving a Chinese vessel that reportedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen.

Many of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run through the 1.3-million-square-mile South China Sea, a part of the South Pacific that is thought to hold large deposits of oil and natural gas.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton riled China last year when she said freedom of navigation in the area was a U.S. national interest and offered to help mediate a multilateral resolution of local disputes.

China has declared most of the sea to be within its sovereign waters and wants disputes resolved bilaterally with each nation. The state-run news agency Xinhua recently said “history shows that China has indisputable sovereignty over the sea’s islands and their surrounding waters.”

Gen. Chen’s comments on the dispute were among a series of complaints raised about U.S. activities and policy in the region at the news conference, held on the second day of Adm. Mullen’s visit to China, the first by a joint chiefs chairman since 2007.

During a 90-minute conference, Gen. Chen criticized the current visit to the United States by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom the Chinese accuse of promoting independence for Tibet. The general also complained about the attitudes of some unnamed U.S. political leaders toward China, and he said reconnaissance by U.S. aircraft and ships off the Chinese coast was raising tensions.

The United States should be “more modest and prudent in words and deeds,” Gen. Chen said.

Earlier, Adm. Mullen told reporters that he is concerned that ongoing incidents and growing tensions in the South China Sea will trigger a “miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated, and we should seek to avoid that under all circumstances.”

Adm. Mullen appeared to play down the general’s comments, stating on Twitter that he held “good discussions” in Beijing and noting that the U.S and China “will not agree on everything but now is the time to focus on those things that we can agree on.”

In a speech to a Renmin University on Sunday, Adm. Mullen said the United States is a Pacific power and would remain so, while acknowledging China’s emergence as a new global power.

Contrary to Gen. Chen’s statement that the two sides “found a lot of common ground” during the talks, the comments underline obstacles to what Adm. Mullen said was a key objective during his four-day visit — improving military-to-military relations between the two superpowers.

In a news release issued after the conference, the two leaders announced plans for a series of high-level military visits and joint naval activities this year, according to Xinhua.

Hospital ships of the two navies will conduct exchanges and carry out joint medical and rescue drills; there will be joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden; and U.S. and Chinese armed forces will conduct joint humanitarian rescue and disaster relief drills, Xinhua said.

Besides his talks with Gen. Chen, Adm. Mullen also met Monday with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Guo Boxiong and National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. He also visited the headquarters of the Chinese army’s Second Artillery Force, which commands China’s strategic nuclear weapons.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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