SHENYANG, China—America's top military commander in the Pacific said Monday that Chinese officials had let him climb into the cockpit of their nation's latest supersonic fighter-bomber as a confidence-building gesture, but that the two militaries faced a long slog in reducing mutual suspicions.
Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, said he had invited Chinese military officers to observe a major American naval and Air Force exercise next month near Guam.
The United States wasn't invited to observe a Chinese-Russian military exercise last year.
The American invitation, Fallon said, is part of a plan to boost exchanges between U.S. and Chinese military officers so that they "would really feel comfortable with one another."
"I have pushed for renewed military-to-military contacts because I believe it's important to understand one another better ... so that we can reduce tension that we've had between the two militaries," Fallon said.
Fallon said American legal restrictions on full relations between the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army were tightened after a 2001 incident in which a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. naval spy plane in the air. More Chinese reciprocity on military visits could help him argue on Capitol Hill for lifting some restrictions, Fallon said.
Fallon said his Chinese hosts accommodated "virtually everything that I asked to do," including visits to the air force technical university in Xian, the Jianqiao air base in Hangzhou and a concluding stop at the army's 39th infantry regiment south of Shenyang in northeast China.
"I believe I'm the first American that's had an opportunity to see firsthand the new FB-7 fighter-bomber," Fallon said of his visit to the air base. "I had a chance to actually climb in the cockpit, which put a big smile on my face, with my aviation background."
The twin-engine, two-seat supersonic FB-7 fighter-bomber is China's most advanced aircraft, although it isn't yet fully operational and is less capable than modern U.S. and Russian aircraft.
Fallon said the Pentagon was taking other steps to interact with Chinese army officers, including:
_Inviting Gen. Liang Guanglie, the army's chief of staff, to join a November meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of Pacific regional commanders. China hasn't been invited in the past.
_Seeking reciprocal visits by commanders who handle the nuclear arsenals of each country, perhaps starting with the head of the U.S. Strategic Command visiting China.
Fallon said he was convinced that American and Chinese military officers needed to talk more, including at levels far below the senior leadership.
"I believe we just need to start moving down this road, and the sooner we do it the better off we're going to be," he said.
Fallon said Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan had pressed him as to why a Pentagon report last year cast the Chinese army as a potential adversary of the U.S. military and noted the army's sharp budget increase in recent years, including in spending for strategic systems.
China puts its military budget at about $35 billion this year, although American military experts claim it's two or three times higher than that.
"As we discussed these items, it struck me that there is a long way to go to understand the perceptions from both sides," Fallon said. As it is now, he said, the two nations' militaries hardly even have regular telephone contact.''
"There is no hot line that I'm aware of right now," he said. "Frankly, from my view, I'd be very happy with just plain old telephone contacts."
Fallon noted that in the past two weeks, he had spoken with the military chiefs of four nations in his region in "routine calls in which we discuss any number of issues."
"That doesn't exist between the U.S. and the PRC (People's Republic of China). I'd like to see it happen. It's not going to be overnight. It's going to take a while," he said, adding that more confidence-building must take place. "So I push for the plain old telephone system.
"Talk is a priority."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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