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U.S. commander visits China in search of more openness

Adm. Timothy Keating cites concerns about canceled port calls, military range and the Taiwanese election.

January 15, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The growing range of Chinese submarines and other weapons systems, recent tensions over canceled Hong Kong port calls and heightened sensitivities over Taiwan's upcoming presidential election underscore the importance of improved relations between the Chinese and U.S. militaries, a high-ranking American commander said today.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, said during a three-day China visit that Washington sought greater openness from China, particularly in the areas of long-range cruise missiles, antisatellite technology and "area-denial" weapons that prevent adversaries from occupying territory.

"The last thing we want is a confrontation, whether in the air, on the sea or under the sea," Keating told reporters in a briefing at the U.S. Embassy.

A number of Chinese submarines have surfaced close to U.S. warships recently, and in November, China canceled at the last minute a Hong Kong port call by the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. This followed by a few days China's cancellation of a requested port visit by two U.S. Navy minesweepers seeking shelter. China has not explained the cancellations, but officials suggested they were related to U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan or to a congressional honor bestowed on the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has accused the Dalai Lama of trying to encourage Tibet to secede.

Gen. Chen Bingde, in charge of day-to-day operations for the 2.2-million-member People's Liberation Army, sought to ease U.S. concerns even as he defended the port-call cancellations.

"China is a country with its own territory," Bingde said Monday. "If your ship wants to stop by in Hong Kong, you have to follow the international rules and go through some procedures."

Keating said part of the reason for his visit was to help avoid missteps over Taiwan, which has a presidential election March 22. China fears Taiwan might declare independence this year after concluding that as the 2008 Olympics host, Beijing will be reluctant to respond too aggressively.

China's military has enjoyed double-digit budget increases over the last decade, although its capabilities pale in comparison with those of the Pentagon. Openness between two such lopsided forces remains difficult, said He Qisong, a professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

"There's no absolute transparency when it comes to military issues," he said. "Otherwise, there wouldn't be any military secrets."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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