New US general seeks China air safety dialogue

The U.S. Air Force's new commander in the Pacific said Saturday she's hoping to continue talks with China on avoiding dangerous encounters in the air that have added to regional tensions.

Gen. Lori Robinson said she anticipates a speaking engagement at China's biggest air show later this month will allow her to renew dialogue on the issue.

"The dialogue is beginning. I think that's very, very good for the region," Robinson said in a telephone interview from Hawaii.

Concerns over risky aerial engagements were spotlighted after a Chinese fighter jet came within 9 meters (30 feet) of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon plane over the South China Sea in August.

That revived memories of a 2001 collision between aircraft from the two countries that killed a Chinese jet fighter pilot and forced a heavily damaged U.S. surveillance plane to land at a Chinese base.

Tensions were also raised last year after China declared an air-defense identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The U.S., Japan and others have refused to recognize the move because the area encompassed by the zone includes territory controlled by Japan.

The ongoing feud over control of the islands has sparked fears of a collision or shoot-down, with Japan saying it has boosted jet scramblings by almost 30 percent in response to approaches by Chinese planes.

Robinson said the U.S. wants all parties to adhere to internationally recognized norms for safety in flight similar to rules followed by the U.S. and former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

While not ruling out the possibility of future encounters like the one in August, she said it was vital that Beijing and Washington work toward an understanding.

"I never say never. What I will say is that what's important is that we do start the dialogue," Robinson said.

Robinson is the U.S. military's first female four-star combat commander and the first woman to head the Pacific Air Forces. While most commanders have been pilots by training, Robinson's speciality is air battle management.

Her area of command encompasses 259 million square kilometers (100 million square miles), ranging from the U.S. West Coast to the east coast of Africa and from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

While Saturday's interview dwelt mainly on the challenge from China's growing military assertiveness, U.S. officials say Russia has also been stepping up air patrols around Japan and South Korea and traveling as far as the California coast and U.S. territory of Guam.