Mullen visits China to mend military ties, but South China Sea disputes steal spotlight

Recent South China Sea skirmishes between China and other Asian nations dominated US Admiral Mike Mullen's four-day visit to China.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Gen. Chen Bingde (l.) China's top Chinese army official, and Adm. Mike Mullen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, review an honor guard together during a welcoming ceremony for Mullen at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Monday, July 11.

The highest-ranking officer in the US military, Adm. Mike Mullen, wrapped up a four-day visit to China on Wednesday.

Despite fine-sounding commitments to improve the military ties, however, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's visit was dogged by tensions in the South China Sea.

A series of recent incidents involving Chinese vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea and naval drills involving US forces, offered glimpses of the underlying tensions that plague the relationship between the two powers.

Chen Bingde, China's top army official expressed misgivings about the US decision to conduct naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea at the height of recent tensions in June. The general also criticized US plans to conduct similar exercises with the Vietnamese Navy later this month, describing the decision to go ahead with the drills as "inappropriate."

Admiral Mullen’s message to Beijing was no less direct.

“[The US has] had a presence in this region for decades ... and certainly the intent is to broaden and deepen our interests here and our relationships here," Mullen said in response to a question about recent US military exercises in the South China Sea from a student at one of Beijing's universities. "We have relationships with many countries not just in the region but throughout the world, and that will continue as well,” he said.

Mullen also made a point of stressing communication during crises as a way to help rebuild the military-to-military relationship between the two countries.

“It is precisely in times of crises that miscalculation and miscommunication can occur,” he said.

Both countries committed to a series of new initiatives they said displayed their willingness to nurture a sound relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

These included joint US and Chinese counter-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden sometime this year. China began taking part in international anti-piracy patrols in the waters off Somalia in 2009.

Mullen’s visit is the latest in a series of high-level reciprocal visits between the leaders of the Chinese and US militaries. While in China, Mullen met with Chinese brass, toured Chinese military facilities, and took questions from staff and students at a Beijing University.

The series of exchanges seek to repair the frayed military relations between the two Pacific powers after the Chinese government cut-off military contact with the US in January 2010 following President Obama's decision to approve the sale of a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan.

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