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Gates, Willard Seek More Engagement With China

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, South Korea, Oct. 21, 2009 – It’s in the United States’ long-term interest to engage more closely with China, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today, and his new top officer in the Pacific said he’s looking forward to the role he hopes to play in the dialogue.

Dialog between the two countries, particularly about China’s military modernization efforts, will go a long way toward promoting transparency and “preventing miscalculations,” Gates told a gathering of U.S. and South Korean troops here today.

It also can promote the kind of relationship required for the United States and China to work together to confront mutual security concerns, he said.

Gates cited China’s important role in the six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. “The Chinese have a similar interest in preventing destabilizing activities in the region as much as any of us,” he said. “Our goal moving forward is to try to encourage China to grow its participation in internationally stabilizing activities.”

Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, who took the helm at U.S. Pacific Command just two days ago, said welcomes the role he’ll play in promoting more dialogue and engagement with China.

China brought an abrupt halt to that interchange after the United States announced arms sales to Taiwan in October 2008, but slowly is showing interest in reengaging.

Chinese Gen. Xu Caihou, China’s No. 2 military officer, will meet with Gates in Washington next week, but Willard said he wants more lower-level engagement throughout the military ranks as well. He expressed hope that these exchanges will engender trust and help to clear up some of the uncertainty – particularly about China’s military buildup that’s proceeded at “an unprecedented rate.”

The United States isn’t the only country that’s taken notice, he said. “Our regional partners are somewhat uncertain about it,” he said. “And one of my responsibilities is to seek to better the relations and the levels of understanding regarding intentions and regarding that military development.”

Willard said he’d like to use the dialog as a way to “seek areas that we have in common and common interest in.” He noted efforts China already is involved in or might want to contribute toward, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterpiracy in the Gulf of Aden, counterproliferation, and search-and-rescue and submarine rescue efforts.

Increased dialogue also could help to clear up differences in how the two countries interpret maritime law. It’s caused some close calls when Chinese naval vessels tried to prevent U.S. ships from operating in international waters off its shores.

“[The Chinese] interpret military operations in their exclusive economic zone differently than we do – and differently, frankly, than the majority of countries do globally,” Willard said.

“We are more than happy to sit down and have an adult discussion about our differences,” Willard added, but he also said the United States isn’t about to back down.

“The United States has operated in the maritime domain in this region of the world for 150 years, and we have no intention of doing differently,” he said. “We very much exert our right to operate militarily and with our commercial ships in international water throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”

Willard noted China’s rise as an economic and world power, and said he welcomes the role it can play as a regional partner.

“China is not our enemy,” he said. “We look forward to a constructive relationship with China, and their constructive contribution to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.”

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Robert M. Gates
Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard

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U.S. Pacific Command
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