Defense minister in crucial tour of US

Updated: 2012-05-07 03:26

By Cui Haipei in Beijing and Tan Yingzi in Washington (China Daily)

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Liang's landmark trip expected to defuse South China Sea tension

A landmark visit to the United States by the defense minister will help diffuse the tense situation in the South China Sea, analysts said, as the standoff between China and the Philippines continues in waters off Huangyan Island.

Liang Guanglie, the first defense minister to visit the US in nine years, will meet his counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington on Monday.

Su Hao, director of the center for strategic and conflict management at the China Foreign Affairs University, said Liang will discuss Beijing's stance on the South China Sea during his six-day visit.

Manila declared on Thursday that Panatag Shoal is its preferred name for Huangyan Island.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said, when asked if the preferred name was meant to assert the country's claim over the shoal, that "brevity" was the reason for the new name.

Liang might require the US to play a more constructive role on South China Sea disputes, and particularly on the standoff over Huangyan Island, Su said.

Manila tried to arrest Chinese fishermen near the island, situated in Chinese territorial waters, last month.

The focus is shifting from Northeast Asia to the South China Sea, Su said.

Liang should tell the US that the South China Sea has the potential to spark conflict, he said.

The defense minister will also visit San Diego naval base, the Southern Command in Florida, Fort Benning in Georgia, the 4th Fighter Wing in North Carolina, West Point academy and other military sites.

The visit should help reduce potential areas of misunderstanding, said Yin Zhuo, a Beijing-based military expert.

Su also pointed out that two commanders, from the Shenyang and Xinjiang military regions, are accompanying Liang.

This might reflect a greater willingness for military cooperation as these areas are near Northeast and Central Asia where the US has a military presence, Su said.

A visit to China in July by Mike Mullen, the former US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw an agreement reached to promote military relations to cope with regional and global security challenges.

Gao Zugui, from the Institute for International Strategic Studies, said Liang's visit will enhance trust. Improved military relations will benefit Sino-US relations as a whole, he said, mentioning that Panetta will soon visit China.

Michael Swaine, Chinese security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the militaries in both countries are "becoming increasingly entrenched" in their views regarding the motives of the other, and this is a "complicating factor" in the larger relationship.

"There is a strong need to bring that military relationship into line with the larger objectives," he said. "We need to establish a long-term program to improve the relationship, not just dialogue, not just visits, but actual military activities with other countries in the (Asia-Pacific) region.

"Moving in that direction is essential for both countries to get away from the current zero-sum mindset that is operating in the two militaries."

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, said maintaining a positive relationship with China is important in solving the South China Sea issue.

"A response to the challenge the Chinese are presenting in the South China Sea requires clear priorities,'' he said.

"Positive US-China relations are an important context, not an ‘interest' in and of themselves. The intersection of US and Chinese interests in the region and beyond is very narrow."