February 18, 2006
Briefing the Chinese Army

By Richard Halloran

The United States Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army of China have quietly begun an exchange of military officers that is intended to reduce the chances of a miscalculation leading to hostilities between the established power in the Pacific and the rising power of East Asia.

A delegation of 20 senior Chinese officers visited Hawaii, where the Pacific Command has its headquarters, and Alaska, which is within the command’s area of responsibility, in November. A group of Chinese specialists in military personnel came in January. The first American delegation is scheduled to go to China next month.

The commanding officer of the Pacific Command, Admiral William J. Fallon, said in an interview that this has been a "significant engagement." Most U.S. military exchanges with China were cut off in 1989 after Chinese troops had killed unknown numbers of Chinese advocates of democracy in Tienanmen Square in Beijing.

Those exchanges resumed during President Bill Clinton’s Administation in the 1990’s but were conducted mainly by high level defense officials and military officers. After President George W. Bush came to office in 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered a review of the entire program.

Almost everything stopped in April of that year after a Chinese fighter pilot clipped a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese plane spiraled into the sea while the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on the island of Hainan in China.

Since then, senior officials of the Bush Administration have been skeptical of renewing military exchanges with China, arguing that they do not benefit the United States. Many military officers, however, have contended that well-done exchanges would deter the Chinese once they were informed of U.S. capabilities and intentions.

Admiral Fallon said the Chinese officers in the current exchanges, who are the first operational officers representing the next generation of military leaders to come to America, had arrived with "a very high desire to learn" as they didn’t know much about the U.S. armed forces beforehand.

A U.S. staff officer who dealt with the Chinese during their visit confirmed that, saying "they didn’t know anything about America except what they learned from Hollywood." American officers said they thought they had been able to correct some of the mistaken impressions held by the Chinese, most of whom were making their first trip abroad.

The first group of 20 Chinese officers, led by Major General Zhang Wenda, a deputy chief of the general staff, was equally divided between operational officers who train and lead soldiers and political commissars who monitor the Chinese forces, or PLA, to make sure the troops are politically correct.

The officers were mostly one-star brigadier generals but their responsibilities, as brigade commanders for instance, were those of American colonels, one grade below. Each Chinese was paired with an American, five of whom spoke Chinese, through the weeklong stay. Four Chinese spoke English.

To set an example, Admiral Fallon instructed American officers to be as open as possible, without divulging secrets, in answering Chinese questions. U.S. military leaders, from President George W. Bush down, have long complained that the Chinese lack "transparency" in everything from military spending to troop training.

The Chinese were briefed not only at the Pacific Command headquarters but at the Pacific Air Force and Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii and at the Army’s command post in Alaska, a five hour flight from Honolulu. American officers said the Chinese were surprised by the vast area for which the Pacific Command is responsible.

U.S. officers said they were ready to respond to Chinese questions about strategy but found the Chinese not prepared to discuss issues at that level. Instead, they focused on tactical questions such as how long it took to begin moving a brigade (18 hours) and how did a U.S. colonel control his brigade.

The Chinese enjoyed dining with American soldiers in Alaska and looking at their two-and three-man rooms in a new barracks, which are far more comfortable than the spartan barracks in China. They went on a shopping spree at the Pearl Harbor base exchange and bought out the inventory of Chanel no. 5 perfume.

"If you go to China and catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5," said an American officer, "that’s probably a PLA wife."

When the Chinese arrived, Admiral Fallon said, "they were full of propaganda" about how the U.S. was seeking to surround and contain China. American officers who dealt with the Chinese thought they had been able to persuade them that the U.S. intended China no harm—but would use military power, if necessary to defend U.S. interests.

"We think they went away with a good balance," said one.

The second group of Chinese, the specialists in personnel, wanted to know what American military people are paid. When they were told that an American colonel made $11,540 in pay and allowances, a Chinese said: "That’s a year, right?" "No," replied his American counterpart, "that’s a month." The Chinese was evidently stunned.

During their visit, the Chinese were taken to the USS Arizona memorial above the battleship sunk by the Japanese in their surprise attack of Dec. 7, 1941, to bring America into World War II. The ship still rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, reflecting perhaps the greatest defeat in American history.

About 200 yards downstream, however, sits the battleship USS Missouri aboard which the Japanese surrendered to end World War II on Sept. 2, 1945. It reflects a distinct triumph of American arms. U.S. officers said they thought the Chinese had gotten the message:

"You do bad stuff to us," said an American officer, "and bad stuff happens to you."

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, writes from Honolulu. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

Richard Halloran

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