U.S.-China Military 'Hotline' Elusive, Pacific Commander Says

The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific used his visit to China this month to press again for a telephone hotline between the two countries, but he reported little progress Monday.

Three months after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart suggested some movement toward establishing a phone link, the U.S. still doesn't have a number to call when problems arise, said Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command.

"I really am anxious to be able to get ahold of somebody," said Keating, who recently returned from his second trip to China to speak with top military leaders there.

He said he told Chinese officials that "if something comes up I'd like to call you and say what are you guys doing." But so far, he said, they "just haven't given us the phone numbers yet."

Keating described his meetings in Beijing as less confrontational and less tense than those in the past. And he spoke more optimistically about the prospects for China to become more open about its ongoing military buildup.

Yet he could point to little movement by the Chinese to address a host of U.S. concerns. He said the Chinese provided no explanation or apology for their refusal to allow an aircraft carrier group and two minesweepers to dock in Hong Kong in two separate incidents last November.

And he said Chinese officials gave him no explanation for last year's anti-satellite test, when China shot down one of its defunct weather satellites, drawing immediate criticism from the U.S. and other countries.

A phone link, Keating said, might have helped in the standoff last November when two U.S. Navy minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm were denied entry to Hong Kong harbor. Two days later, China refused to allow the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk make a planned port visit to Hong Kong.

"They've got phones, I know they do, I saw them," said Keating, with a touch of humor. He said officials are working on the matter, "as a measure of this developing trust and confidence." And he said there will be a meeting in February on the issue.

Keating said his overall message to the Chinese was that the U.S. is looking for not only a clearer picture of Beijing's increased development of weapons systems, but a better idea of the communist giant's intentions.

China increased its military budget by nearly 18 percent to about $45 billion last year, the largest annual hike in more than a decade. But U.S. officials believe the spending is even greater than that, and have repeatedly called for greater transparency by the Chinese.