The top US military officer departs for China today in a trip designed to forge a security dialogue with Beijing, officials said, but a naval exercise with US warships in the South China Sea threatens to aggravate tensions.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, sets off for a four-day tour “later this afternoon,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Mullen — who in May hosted his Chinese counterpart, People’s Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde — “looks forward to continuing the engagement and dialogue” with Chen in Beijing, the statement said.
The admiral’s trip coincides with a joint naval drill set for Saturday with the US, Japanese and Australian navies sailing in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its maritime territory.
Japan’s defense ministry announced the exercise and said today it will send the destroyer Shimakaze to join a US Navy destroyer and a Royal Australian Navy patrol boat for communications training and other drills off Brunei.
China has objected to previous US naval exercises in the South China Sea, and tensions in the strategic and resource-rich area have mounted in recent weeks. The Philippines and Vietnam have expressed concern over what they call China’s increasingly assertive stance there.
Mullen’s visit also comes after the United States and the Philippines carried out joint naval exercises, which Manila and Washington insisted were aimed at deepening military ties and not related to worries over China.
China has insisted that it wants a peaceful resolution of territorial disagreements, but has warned Washington against involvement in the intensifying disputes.
The trip to China is the first by a US chairman of the joint chiefs since 2007, officials said.
The admiral was due to address students at Renmin University in Beijing, it said.
As tensions in the South China Sea have mounted, the pace of China-US military exchanges have also picked up, with the former US defence secretary Robert Gates meeting Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie in Singapore in early June, following a January visit by Gates to Beijing.
Gates warned last month that clashes could erupt in the South China Sea unless nations with conflicting territorial claims adopt a mechanism to settle their disputes peacefully.