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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Chinese ships due at Pearl

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

PEARL HARBOR Chinese warships are visiting Hawai'i and the West Coast for the first time in six years as the two nations continue a rapprochement after a U.S. spy plane was downed in 2001, leading to a deep freeze in relations.

The destroyer Qingdao and oiler Hongzehu are expected to arrive in Pearl Harbor today about midday for a four-day stay and visit by Rear Adm. Wang Fushan, deputy commander of the North Sea Fleet.

From there, the ships are expected to stop in California, Canada and the Philippines in what China is calling a goodwill cruise, U.S. officials said.

Communications will be practiced with the Pearl Harbor-based destroyer USS Chung-Hoon, and ship passing and search-and-rescue exercises also are planned.

Adm. William Fallon, the Hawai'i-based commander of U.S. Pacific Command, just returned from his third trip to China "and we're looking at (today's) port visit of the Chinese ships to Pearl Harbor as just the next step in our military-to-military relationship," said Capt. Jeff Alderson, a Pacific Command spokesman.

"This goes toward the transparency that we're trying to build between China and the U.S. on a consistent, long-term basis," Alderson said.

That's important to prevent misunderstanding between the two militaries over flashpoints like the Taiwan Strait, officials say. Chinese navy ships in the past would not respond to U.S. signals because they aren't used to internationally recognized light flashes and flags.

"They would not acknowledge us in many cases" in international waters, said Capt. Joe Skinner, a plans and policy official at Pacific Command.

Christopher McNally, a China analyst at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said the visit is another positive step in improving relations with China. The country's rapidly developing military could pose a serious challenge to the United States, analysts say.

China has become a "blue water" navy and conducted its first around-the-world cruise in 2004, Skinner said. But China also could work with the United States and other countries to stop terrorism and piracy and improve maritime security throughout the region, he said.

"They are getting more and more large ships (and are visiting) more ports around the world," Skinner said. "Because of that, (they) will have more interaction with other navies."

Relations deteriorated with the U.S. after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, were rebuilt in the late 1990s, and reached another low after a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter in 2001. The crippled plane was forced to land on China's Hainan Island and the crew was held for 11 days.

"You are seeing these kind of very ginger movements in the direction of having a lot more communications between the two militaries," McNally said.

Restrictions were placed on military exchanges with China by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000.

But the U.S. Navy has been able to conduct two port visits a year to China most recently with a stop by the USS Blue Ridge in Shanghai in late June.

China has agreed to four visits by the U.S. each year. The last visit by the Chinese navy to U.S. territory was to Guam in 2003.

"But for reciprocity, we would like China to visit the United States as frequently as we visit them, just to increase transparency," Skinner said.

There have been visits by high-ranking officials on both sides, and whether China follows through in taking part in a second phase of search-and-rescue drills with the U.S. off China's coast in the fall will be another test of expanding ties.

Fallon, who heads Pacific Command, has let the Chinese know that an easing of the current restrictions can only occur if they respond with transparency and reciprocity, Alderson said.

With a positive response, Fallon is willing to propose to the U.S. defense secretary that some of those restrictions be lifted, Alderson said.

"It's important to understand that it has to be through the (defense) secretary and this is legislated by Congress, and that's why we have to start with things like the (search-and-rescue and communications exercises) right now," he said.

Some uncertainty remained yesterday for the Chinese navy visit. Chinese officials had yet to tell U.S. counterparts which port in California they wanted to stop at.

The Chung-Hoon out of Pearl Harbor was selected to participate in the communications and ship-passing exercises off O'ahu because its namesake, Honolulu-born Rear Adm. Gordon Pai'ea Chung-Hoon, who died in 1979, was part Chinese, British and Hawaiian.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.