After earthquake, China welcomes U.S. military

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Singapore, the Pentagon sees a turnaround in the Chinese security forces.

China's response to the May 12 earthquake that killed thousands has pleasantly surprised some US officials and forced them to view the country and its sometimes mysterious military with fresh eyes.

The Chinese government has not only accepted US aid graciously, but also has allowed the US military to have a new level of communication with its Chinese counterparts, for the first time using a new "hot line" created to increase discussion among Chinese and American military commanders.

The new signs of cooperation come as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, travel to Singapore for Friday's regional security talks that are expected to have a different flavor in light of the recent developments in China.

Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads the US Pacific Command and has visited the country twice in the last year, said China's acceptance of aid and willingness to talk to US military leaders seems like a turnaround for a country that has been secretive and suspicious of inquiry.

"China's reaction here in the aftermath of this earthquake is different than China's reaction has been to other natural disasters in China," he told Pentagon reporters Wednesday. "While it is catastrophic and tragic, it nonetheless is an opportunity for us to increase and improve the communications we have with officials in China."

The US military has shared satellite imagery with China to help government officials there determine the extent of the damage from the earthquake and its aftershocks in Sichuan Province that killed more than 67,000 people. It's an in for the US military, which engages with its Chinese counterparts but is often mystified by the lack of transparency as China builds submarines and new bombers, and develops other military programs.

So far, the Chinese have accepted two military flights carrying water, food, generators, blankets, and 183 chain saws. An additional commercial flight on Tuesday brought in more tents, for a total of 800, for people whose homes were ruined. The acceptance of US aid is in stark contrast to Burma (Myanmar), which has refused the bulk of what the US has offered following the deadly cyclone there this month.

Historically, the Chinese have been loath to accept foreign aid, seeing it as "losing face," some analysts say. But defense officials say that they've seen small differences in the way the Chinese accepted aid for this disaster. Even during the severe snowstorms in China last winter, the US employed far more diplomatic initiatives in trying to help China, defense officials say. This time, the Chinese government issued international pleas for help and has been responsive in accepting and then acknowledging the assistance publicly.

Earlier this month, Admiral Keating used the new hot line to speak with his Chinese counterpart, and the two shared thoughts on the disaster response and what else China needed. The line, essentially a special phone number, was established to give the US and China an easy way to talk with each other directly after US military commanders had complained for years about the difficulty of communicating with the Chinese military. Even now, though, Keating says he would still like the cellphone number of his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, to make talking even easier. He says he's not sure yet he'll get it right away, but maybe soon.

Cheng Li, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says China is adopting a new approach and is increasing its transparency. The earthquake created an opportunity for the government to accept help as it prepares for the summer Olympics, he says.

"At least to some leaders, China's poor international image is a big liability for China's development and security," Mr. Li says. "They had to change."

Li cites the willingness of the Chinese government to allow media to accompany officials on visits to the disaster area and to cover the government's response as examples. Just last year, US military leaders were scratching their heads when the Chinese government refused US warships a series of port visits, which had occurred regularly and are allowed by international maritime rules. Earlier that year, the Chinese shot down one of their own weather satellites in a move that was widely seen as an ominous testing of capabilities. But the Chinese have yet to discuss the matter in any detail.

Many American conservatives believe China's military buildup poses a tremendous challenge to Western security interests, and that the next major conflict could be with China. But others, including Defense Secretary Gates, say that while China's military ambitions as a world superpower need monitoring, US policymakers should not lose sleep over China as a "near peer" military competitor.

Li says he hopes China's increased willingness to cooperate with the US and with other countries will help to influence those American conservatives to view the country in a more moderate context.

"It's an opportunity to work with China as a responsible and accountable power, a responsible stakeholder," he says.

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