The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, is in China on a visit aimed at restarting full military cooperation between the two countries. There have been no regular high-level military visits between the two countries since a 2001 incident involving a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance airplane in southern China.
The U.S. commander's seven-day visit has included meetings with China's top military officials, including talks with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing on Friday. The two sides agreed early in the visit, which began Tuesday, to step up military exchanges at all levels.
Admiral William Fallon hopes to repair military ties that were cut in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance aircraft near southern China's Hainan island. The Chinese pilot was killed and Chinese authorities held the American crew members for 11 days after the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan.
Among the things U.S. military officials are proposing is the establishment of a hotline between the Chinese defense ministry and the Pentagon. Reports in Chinese state media have said Beijing is moving toward accepting the proposal.
Sheila Smith, an expert on Asia security issues at the East-West Center, a research facility in Hawaii, says the hotline is key to better relations between the two militaries at a time when mutual suspicions are running high across the Pacific.
"The two militaries' being able to pick up the phone and talk to each other suggests a very close and fundamentally cooperative relationship, and I think the hotline is the first symbolic step in developing that," she said.
U.S. military officials are concerned about China's rush to expand its military capabilities as it continues to threaten Taiwan and as Beijing's relations with Japan deteriorate.
Beijing, for its part, is concerned about U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, as well as the growing American military presence in Central Asia.
This year, China's communist leadership said it is boosting defense spending by nearly 15 percent, a figure analysts say is probably vastly understated.
Smith says Beijing's lack of transparency in this and other defense matters has fueled suspicions in the United States.
"One of the key aspects of confidence building is 'if I show you what we're doing in our ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) deployment in the United States, then we want to see what your missiles and deployment patterns are like,'" she said. "So, equality and reciprocity are going to be very important in enhancing the transparency of the Chinese military system," she said.
Smith and others say that while getting China to become more open about its military ambitions and easing suspicions in general will not happen overnight, visits like that of Admiral Fallon are key to the process.