The U.S. and China are discussing ways to improve communication between their militaries to avoid potential conflict at a time of heightened tensions in the region, departing U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said.
The two militaries are talking about establishing a “more direct instantaneous method of communication,” Locke said today in a speech in Beijing.
Sparring between the two countries has intensified as China flexes its economic and military muscle in Asia. The U.S. doesn’t recognize an air defense identification zone China set up in November over a swathe of the East China Sea that includes islands disputed with Japan. In December, a Chinese military vessel cut in front of the USS Cowpens in the South China Sea, an incident Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called “irresponsible.”
General Raymond Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, held talks with his military counterparts in Beijing last week to address some of the tensions, and said the U.S. and China both have “incredibly professional armies.”
China’s defense spending reached $240 billion last year, about twice the officially declared budget, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said this month. China’s official defense spending is less than a fifth of the U.S. China launched its first aircraft carrier last year, while its air force is fielding new precision-guided cruise missiles, long-range bombers and drones, according to U.S. military intelligence officials.
Chinese coast guard vessels continue to tail Japanese ships around the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in China. Asked about Sino-Japanese ties, Locke said both sides need to avoid action that could raise tension.
“The last thing we need is some unintended incident that leads to unintended consequences, very severe consequences,” he said. “Whether it’s a fishing boat bumping into a navy vessel and someone drowning. It’s important that both sides lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy.”
Locke also called for China to focus on respect for human rights, including freedom of speech, assembly and the right to practice one’s own religion. “We call on China to improve its record in this area,” Locke, flanked by his wife Mona, said at his final press conference in Beijing.
Locke said he was concerned about a rise in the arrest of activists in China and said the country needed the rule of law to carry out economic reforms.
This year China has arrested a number of activists who have challenged the government. Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uighur academic, was formally arrested this month, his lawyer Li Fangping said yesterday. In January Xu Zhiyong, a prominent dissident, was sentenced to four years in jail on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order. Locke cited the detention of Tohti in commenting on China’s human rights record.
The detention was law enforcement and not a rights abuse, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said in Beijing today. U.S. criticism over the arrest was “rude interference,” she said.
Touting his achievements in cutting visa waiting times and promoting Chinese investment in the U.S., Locke also recalled his role in prominent events such as the escape of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng from house arrest to the U.S. embassy in April 2012.
Locke, a former secretary of commerce and the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, said he had no plans to run for office when he returns to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, 72, succeeds him as ambassador.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson