Mabus begins pivot talks in China

In China this week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus becomes the latest Obama administration official seeking to explain to Beijing what the U.S. strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific is really all about.

Mabus commenced high-level meetings on Monday including with Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and other People’s Liberation Army officials about the U.S. pivot -- or what Pentagon officials call the “rebalancing.”

Whatever one calls it, President Obama and his surrogates in the Pentagon long have portrayed the move as a natural, post-war shift in focus toward a burgeoning region, and not an aggressive maneuver to check China’s rising military ambitions. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during his September visit that the pivot was “not an attempt to contain China.”

Few analysts, especially in Asia, believe that is wholly true, and Mabus already has faced a skeptical audience. Liang, according to one Reuters account, dismissed reporters’ questions about skepticism by China's neighbors over the intent behind Beijing's military buildup. Instead, both nations must, he said, “push forward the development of a new China-U.S. military relationship.” Additionally, Commander in Chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy Wu Shengli reportedly said a lack of trust over China’s recent military buildup should not threaten security in the region, according to one Chinese media outlet.

Mabus kicked off his China tour quickly by meeting Rear Adm. Zhang Jianchang at the airport in Beijing. He later plans to visit other sites outside the capital. Mabus is the first U.S. Navy secretary to visit China in 28 years, Chinese media noted proudly, while boasting that Mabus was briefed on China’s recent inaugural aircraft carrier landing.

China’s high-profile treatment of Mabus’ visit is being called a sign toward greater transparency as compared the quieter visits arranged for U.S. naval officials in recent years. There may be some truth to that. Three month ago, during Panetta’s visit, China and Japan argued over ownership of small islands. Panetta and China agreed the U.S. should stay out of such regional spats. But Panetta tested China’s commitment to keep military relations open during political disputes with Washington when one day before landing in Beijing the secretary announced that Washington and Tokyo made a deal to install new radar batteries in Japan.

Previous arms deals in the region have caused Beijing to shut military-to-military communications completely. This time around, still beaming like new parents showing off their aircraft carrier, the Chinese are still talking. And the cameras are still rolling.

“While in China, Secretary Mabus is meeting with military and civilian officials in Beijing including the vice foreign minister, minister of national defense, commander of the PLA Navy, as well as being honored at an official welcoming ceremony hosted by the PLA Navy,” Capt. Pamela Kunze, Mabus’s spokeswoman, told the E-Ring in an email from China.

“From Beijing, Secretary Mabus will travel to Ningbo where he is scheduled to go aboard various PLA Navy ships and submarines.”

Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released