WASHINGTON — During a US Navy port call to Qingdao, China, last month, Lt. Seiko Okano toured a Chinese destroyer, exchanged notes with Chinese submariners, and advanced - at least a little - US-China military relations.
"They were very interested in women in the Navy," says Lieutenant Okano, a US Naval Academy graduate from Evanston, Ill., who is stationed in Okinawa with the US Navy's Seventh Fleet.
The relationship between the two militaries has been devoid of arms transfers or joint exercises - and until recently, seriously strained by diplomatic disputes over Taiwan. So the chief focus of Washington and Beijing is now on the exchange of personnel.
Although described by some US officials as superficial "trappings," others contend that such exchanges are vital for heading off misunderstandings and avoiding conflict between the world's most-populous army and its most-powerful one.
Breaking down the walls of secrecy surrounding China's military is especially important, US officials say, to gain a better grasp of Beijing's intentions and strategy as China upgrades its aircraft, ships, and missiles. "We have a window of opportunity to influence the outcome [of China's military modernization]," says Randy Schriver, director of the Pentagon's China desk and a former naval intelligence officer.
At the same time, the US military seeks to better articulate its policies, intentions, and skills. "In the event that the relationship turns adversarial, it's important that they understand our capabilities," says Mr. Schriver.
During the summit this week between President Clinton and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, the two countries agreed to "strengthen military contacts" and to "increase America's ties to a new generation of China's military leaders," Clinton told a press conference on Wednesday.
The two leaders also concluded a maritime agreement that sets down guidelines for communications between the countries' naval and air forces when they are operating in close proximity. The accord is designed to avoid "accidents, misunderstandings, or miscalculations" that could spark conflicts.
Both sides agreed to share information on disaster relief, a first step toward a US-proposed joint field exercise between the armed forces. "This is a powerful signal to the region that our militaries will not have an adversarial relationship but will cooperate in the field," says Schriver.
The agreements mark a sharp change from the atmosphere in military ties as recently as 19 months ago, when the visit of China's Defense Minister Chi Haotian was postponed as the Chinese lobbed missiles into the waters near Taiwan and US warships arrived on the scene.
Since then, however, the pace of exchanges has been rapidly accelerated. General Chi made his visit, followed by a trip to Beijing by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. This month, top US Navy officer Adm. Jay Johnson discussed national security with his counterparts in China, and observed a Chinese antisubmarine exercise from the command center of a Chinese frigate. "The purpose was to get to know the top leadership so there could be a basis for a more professional and personal relationship," says a US military official.
Before the end of this year, US Secretary of Defense William Cohen is scheduled to visit China.
In addition to such high-level contacts, US officials stress the importance of "operator-to-operator" exchanges between the Chinese and United States militaries, including port calls like the one Okano made to Qingdao last month.
Okano and scores of other US sailors and marines manned the rails of the USS Germantown and USS John McCain as the American warships pulled into Qingdao's harbor on Sept. 11. The five-day visit was hosted by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"At first things were not very open," says Okano, "but as we got to know them through the week, the walls really came down, and we could speak frankly with each other."
The sailors toured each others' ships and inspected their guns, amphibious assault vehicles, and other equipment and weaponry. They also played basketball and held band performances. The US Marines staged a sunset parade.
Okano toured two PLA ships, a frigate and a destroyer, and also visited a Chinese submarine academy. She was struck by the relatively unsophisticated technology. "Their computer systems, navigational systems seemed like our technology about 10 or 20 years ago," she says.
In contrast, she says, the Chinese sailors seemed "very impressed by the cleanliness, the advanced technology" of the US vessels.
While watching a precision parade performance by the US Marines, one Chinese admiral commented, "If they fight like they train, they are pretty powerful people," Okano says.
* Other profiles that ran this week: Chinese author of book on US (Monday), Chinese-American entrepreneur (Tuesday), Chinese dissident in US and a student in Beijing (Wednesday), US-influenced Chinese artist (Thursday).