Sino-US chill curbs informal links

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 May, 2010, 12:00am

The continued freeze in Sino-US military exchanges is affecting a private venture to foster ties between retired generals from both sides.

Admiral Bill Owens (pictured), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leader of the US side of the so-called Sanya Initiative, said a small informal gathering would be held in China this month but Beijing had made it clear the formal annual gathering of 10 generals would not occur until the wider military relationship had improved.

'It is clear the Chinese side have suspended contacts,' Hong Kong-based Owens said, referring to the chill that followed renewed US arms sales to Taiwan and the Dalai Lama's visit to the White House earlier this year.

He said it was still important that both sides would still allow the generals to meet 'as friends ... and that's some degree of progress in a relationship that has been certainly tenuous at times like this, so I think it's a good sign.'

He added that he was 'grieved' at the state of the broader military relationship, given its importance to future Sino-US ties.

The three-year-old grouping has seen top retired brass meet officials on both sides including General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior Pentagon figures. Military analysts will be watching to see whether any serving Chinese officials meet the smaller group later this month - a possible sign relations may be easing.

Owens said he expected two or three figures from each side to take part but did not name them.

The Chinese side is headed by General Xiong Guangkai, the former deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff and military intelligence chief.

Other generals include General Yu Zhenwu and Vice Admiral Zhao Guojun, former Commander of the PLA Air Force and and Commander of the East Sea Fleet respectively. The US side includes Admiral Joseph Prueher, former US ambassador to Beijing and head of the Pacific Command, and General Dennis Reimer, former US Army chief of staff.

The privately funded initiative is still considered unofficial in Washington. It has troubled some officials within the administration of President Barack Obama given increasing fears about China's military build-up and greater naval assertiveness across East Asia.

Owens has also courted controversy by questioning continued arms sales to Taiwan and defence spending plans.

The chairman of private equity firm AEA Investors (Asia), he partly funds the Sino-US initiative. Funding also comes from former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's China-United States Exchange Foundation, Singapore state investment company Temasek and Maurice Greenberg, former head of the giant AIG insurance company.