U.S. Concern Over China Military Spending Grows, Obama Adviser Mullen Says

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Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to the media at the Pentagon in Arlington. Close

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Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to the media at the Pentagon in Arlington.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s top military adviser said he has grown “genuinely concerned” over China’s motives for building up its armed forces.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech in Washington last night that he was worried by China’s “heavy investments” in sea and air capabilities and its rejection of military contacts with the U.S. China will “never be an aggressor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing today, adding that the U.S. should do more to foster “mutual trust” between the armed forces of both sides.

“A gap as wide as what seems to be forming between China’s stated intent and its military programs leaves me more than curious about the end result,” Mullen told the Asia Society Washington. “Indeed, I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned.”

Mullen’s comments step up long-held U.S. criticism of China’s actions and follow a decision by leaders in Beijing to rescind an invitation for a visit from Defense Secretary Robert Gates while he was in the region last week. The U.S. and China last week blamed each other for the freeze in ties sparked by American arm sales to Taiwan, highlighting a divide that’s hampering efforts to resolve tension on the Korean peninsula.

“The question is, should China and the U.S. work together, lead together, to promote regional stability?” Mullen told the group. “Washington’s answer is and has been an unequivocal yes. Beijing’s answer has been sometimes yes and sometimes no.”

China also should take a stronger position on North Korea after allegations the regime was responsible for a torpedo that sank a South Korean vessel on March 26, killing 46 sailors, Mullen said.

North Korea has denied any involvement and China, the totalitarian state’s main ally, has so far refused to take sides.

Encouraged, Dismayed

“I have been encouraged by public statements made recently by Chinese leaders as to the seriousness of this incident and the need for accountability,” Mullen said in the prepared remarks. Still, he said he was “dismayed by a fairly tepid response to calls by the international community for support.”

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last month said his government would not protect anyone found to be guilty of sinking the ship. He added, however, that China was still reviewing evidence from both sides and had yet to draw a conclusion. China’s top priority was to ensure stability on the peninsula, he said.

Mullen called on China to resume military talks “to reduce tension, increase trust and foster the sort of genuine and sustainable stability that the people who live and work in Asia so very much deserve.”

‘No Surprise’

China’s reaction to the planned arms sales to Taiwan threatens regional security, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore on June 5 at a meeting of defense officials from 28 countries. The deals “should come as no surprise” since they have been taking place for decades.

“It is not the Chinese side that has set obstacles to military-to-military ties,” General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue after Gates spoke. “We do not regard U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as something normal.”

The weaponry Taiwan plans to buy includes advanced Lockheed Martin Corp. Patriot missiles valued at $2.8 billion, United Technologies Corp. UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters worth $3.1 billion, and Boeing Co. Harpoon missiles costing $37 million. Gates said the sales are “nothing new” and the U.S. doesn’t support independence for Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province that should be reunited by force if necessary.

“Functional exchanges” with U.S. officials were ongoing even as high-level visits were “temporarily suspended,” Ma said.

Military Backing

Gates and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa last month agreed to jointly monitor China’s navy after Chinese submarines and destroyers were spotted off Okinawa.

Japan and South Korea have cited threats from North Korea or China as reasons for bolstering their defense capabilities -- and their security alliances with the U.S. The U.S. has about 80,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.

Gates said the U.S. will conduct combined military exercises with South Korea and support action in the United Nations Security Council to pressure North Korea.

South Korea has referred the sinking to the council, on which China holds veto power. China accounted for 79 percent of North Korea’s international commerce last year, according to South Korean estimates. China’s allegiance to the North stretches back to the foundation of the two countries, and China came to the North’s assistance during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Still, China depends on trade to maintain economic growth that reached 11.9 percent in the first three months of this year. South Korea is now China’s fourth-biggest trading partner.

China voted alongside the U.S. to tighten UN sanctions against Iran yesterday in New York. Voting for the measures doesn’t “close off continued diplomacy,” spokesman Qin Gang said in comments posted on the foreign ministry’s website after the vote. “A solution to the nuclear standoff should be resolved through dialogue and diplomatic means.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

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