In Melbourne, Mullen keeps US sights on China, Iran

In Melbourne to meet with his Australian counterparts, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen stressed US interest in assessing China's growing military capabilities.

Evan Vucci/AP
From left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen; his wife, Deborah Mullen; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and governor of Victoria David de Kretser pose for pictures Sunday in Melbourne, Australia.

When America’s top military officer gets together with his counterparts from other countries, he generally asks for their advice about China.

“I’m anxious to understand what the assessment of their capabilities is,” says Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and how they’re evolving over time.”

China’s capabilities include considerable cyberespionage expertise and a robust Navy, fruits of a growing defense budget in a country that largely escaped the impact of the global financial crisis.

These trends are troubling to US military officials, who are seeking to expand American military presence in the Pacific.

“We’re very anxious to make sure that no one thinks we’re walking away from here – because we’re not,” Admiral Mullen says.

China’s efforts to flex its muscle in recent years have at times sent shockwaves through the Pentagon, including the successful ballistic missile shoot-down of one of its own orbiting satellites in 2007, a feat widely seen as an ominous move toward the militarization of space. “I’m increasingly concerned about where China seems to be heading with that,” Mullen says.

It’s a topic that was under discussion at this week’s annual Australia-United States ministerial security meeting, in wide-ranging talks that included condemnation of Iran’s nuclear program and how best to fend off cyberattacks.

On the former point, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in one of the more notable moments of a Monday joint press conference with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Australian officials that he disagreed with the notion that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program.

“We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran,” he added.

More controversial here is discussion of a security arrangement that could see an increased US troop presence on bases in Australia as the US military is forced to downsize bases in Japan.

A potential base-sharing arrangement with Australia could provide staging grounds for the US military to quickly respond to humanitarian disasters, US officials note. But China is clearly the greatest calculus in what officials are referring to as a new “forward-deployed diplomacy” in the Pacific.

Secretary Gates stressed that any talk about future US bases is speculation, and said he has yet to submit his global posture review, which will include recommendations on the way forward in the Pacific, to the National Security Council.

He says he would not want to take any steps that could create political backlash in Australia.

That said, however, he noted, “The one thing we have all agreed on is that we are looking at enhanced presence for the United States in Asia, not some kind of cutback.”

Secretary Clinton reiterated a similar point. “We’ve been here, we are here, and we will be here,” she said. “The United States is both a Pacific and an Atlantic power.”

Figuring heavily in the “forward-deployed” diplomatic push is India, where the US military is expanding cooperation with the Indian Navy in response to what Clinton calls “a more complex maritime environment,” which is generally diplomatic code for tensions with China.

Despite those tensions, US officials say they are anxious to strengthen the relationship with China, where Gates is scheduled to visit early next year. And though Mullen says he has no visit to the region scheduled for now, he has invited his Chinese counterpart to come to the Pentagon.

In the meantime, he has sought advice this week from Australian allies, who enjoy a more robust relationship with China. “I really am anxious to put something in place that’s going to work,” says Mullen.

His questions for his counterparts throughout the world, he says, are an effort to look ahead to a time when the United States has a better military-to-military relationship with China. “So as we look to a time when we would have one, I kind of know where to go,” says Mullen, “And what the target is.”

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