U.S. Admiral Eyes Stronger Ties to Chinese Military

Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, hopes the North Korea crisis will draw the American and Chinese militaries into closer cooperation. Fallon's interest in better relations with the Chinese comes as North Korea has agreed to return to negotiations over its nuclear weapons program.

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The American admiral, whose many jobs include keeping an eye on North Korea, says he sees an opportunity. North Korea has agreed to return in negotiations over its nuclear program. And the head of the U.S. Pacific Command says the crisis offers a historic chance for China and the U.S. to improve relations by working together.

Here's NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren.

JOHN HENDREN: Before North Korea tested a series of missiles in July, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked Admiral William Fallon, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, to call his Chinese counterparts.

Admiral WILLIAM FALLON (Commander, U.S. Pacific Command): The secretary asked me to get a hold of him and have a discussion about the seriousness of the situation, and some of the things that we might have to consider doing in the event if these missiles were fired.

HENDREN: Fallon could have that talk with his counterparts and the 42 other nations in the Pacific Command's territory, but he could not talk directly with his equal in China.

Admiral FALLON: When events arise that necessitate communication with the military leadership of these countries, for the vast majority of them, that's as simple as picking up the telephone and dialing a number and asking for the leader on the other side. That's not possible today with China.

HENDREN: Official contacts with the United States are controlled from the very top of the Chinese bureaucracy. The incident reveals both Chinese leaders' reluctance to delegate authority and the lingering suspicions between China and the United States. North Korea's announcement weeks later that it would set off a nuclear device set off a global uproar. But Fallon says this crisis could draw the United States and China closer together.

Admiral FALLON: Certainly, discouraging to find these actions by the North Koreans. But on the other hand, the opportunity for other nations to get together and find common cause in trying to get this nation to come to grips with its actions I think is something that we want to try and take advantage of. And we maybe able to forge a deeper relationship, bringing more trust and understanding as we move to the future.

HENDREN: Fallon has been trying to improve relations with China. Midlevel commanders from the Chinese army are visiting American military installations in California and Hawaii this week for the third time in the past year. And American forces participated in a Hong Kong search and rescue operation last week. Rumsfeld, Fallon and General Peter Pace - chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - have all visited China recently. Those fledgling steps have helped paved the way for closer cooperation over North Korean nukes. Fallon, interviewed before yesterday's agreement with North Korea, held out hope for the six-party talks.

Admiral FALLON: Quite simply, our desired goal would be that they give up their nuclear weapons program. I think that's going to be very difficult for them to do. I'm not naïve enough to think that they're just going to roll over and do this.

HENDREN: Analyst Kurt Campbell is a former senior Pentagon official for Asia who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says the key question is whether China and the United States agree on what they want from North Korea once they get to the bargaining table.

Dr. KURT CAMPBELL (Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): We just disagree on what are our preferred outcomes. For us, the most important thing is a nuclear-free North Korea and if possible, collapsing the North Korean regime. China does not want instability on its borders. And under the right circumstances, we'd probably be prepared to tolerate some form of a nuclear North Korea.

HENDREN: Analysts say that is especially true if the alternative is a massive exodus from a nation of 25 million people on the Chinese frontier.

John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

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