U.S. Military Increasing Contacts with China, Commanders Say

By Vince Crawley
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - U.S. commanders in the Pacific region told Congress they are optimistic about the recent nuclear agreement with North Korea, gradually are increasing military contacts with China and would like to start bringing thousands of American military families to South Korea, where most troops currently serve one-year hardship tours.

“I’m optimistic,” Admiral James Fallon, outgoing chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, where he discussed North Korea’s February 13 agreement to close its nuclear reactor and allow international inspections. Fallon testified on regional issues March 7 along with General B.B. Bell, chief of U.S. forces in Korea and the U.N. Combined Forces Command in South Korea.

Fallon is scheduled in the weeks ahead to become the new chief of U.S. Central Command, where he will focus on regional diplomacy and military engagement throughout the Middle East, the Gulf and Central Asia.

The North Korea nuclear agreement “is a work in progress,” Fallon told the House panel. “There has been substantial progress in just getting that agreement … and I think there’s a lot more yet to be done.” Fallon said China, one of the six parties involved in the talks, played a crucial role in helping reach the agreement. (See related article.)

“We’re very hopeful for the future," said Bell, who commands 29,000 American troops on the Korean Peninsula.

“Nonetheless, as you would expect, I remain cautious about North Korea’s long-term intentions,” Bell testified. “[North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il has a history of manipulating the international community in an attempt to shape the political and military environment to meet his objectives.” Both Bell and Fallon said the February agreement was preceded by two controversial military actions last year – long-range missile launches in July 2006 and the detonation of a nuclear device in October 2006.

North Korea’s “highly provocative military actions” in 2006 “represent a continuing threat to international peace and security,” Bell said.

Concerning China, Fallon testified that its military forces appear to be focused primarily on national defense. During his two years at Pacific Command, Fallon said, he has sought to create working relations between the militaries of China and the United States.

“We have in recent years – up until very recently – had very, very little to no interaction.” While China is active in commercial and economic engagement “and almost every other dimension” of its dealings with the United States, military-to-military contacts have been at a standstill. “We are moving forward,” Fallon said. “This is challenging. … But I think we’ve made some progress.”

For example, he said, in 2006 the militaries of China and the United States for the first time cooperated at the tactical level during a search-and-rescue training exercise off the coast of California. As a follow-up, China and the United States currently are taking part in an Indian Ocean exercise hosted by Pakistan. Fallon said that to his knowledge, this is the "first-ever multilateral engagement” involving China.

In South Korea, U.S. troop levels have gone down from 37,000 to 29,000 and are in the process of consolidating in two hub communities south of Seoul, Bell testified. As part of this consolidation, he said, he is taking immediate steps to improve family life for American service members in Korea. For more than half a century, U.S. forces in South Korea primarily have served one-year tours while their families remained in the United States. About 60 percent of American military personnel are married, but only one in 10 of military personnel stationed in Korea is allowed to serve with his or her family. Another 2,000 family members have moved to Korea at their own expense.

The one-year Korea rotations create a difficult deployment environment in connection with one-year combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bell said. “It’s time for us to transition from a one-year combat rotation mentality [in South Korea] to a normal three-year accompanied tour,” he said.

Bell compared conditions in South Korea to those in Germany during the Cold War. He said his son was born in Germany three decades ago while he served as a lieutenant at a border outpost along the Iron Curtain. Bell’s wife was allowed to accompany him to that post despite a Soviet military threat.

Allowing military families to live in South Korea would “create a true engagement strategy” with the people of Korea, “where families engage culturally, in partnership on the weekends, they get to know each other, they make lifelong friends, and we build the alliance one family at a time.”