PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- China did not join the chiefs of defense forces of 22 nations of the Asia-Pacific region who have just completed their eighth annual conference at the Pearl Harbor HQ of the United States Pacific Command. Under the theme "Shaping Collective Efforts to Counter Transnational Threats," they discussed cooperation in maritime security, countering terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation and the possible avian flu pandemic.
Almost everybody turned up, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Comoros, Fiji, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Timor Leste and Tonga.
"The CHODs Conference provides a tremendous opportunity for us to collectively discuss the important issues at the forefront of Pacific militaries," said U.S. Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command.
"We tackle these issues day-to-day, but this week we get the varied perspectives all in one room, and together drive closer to solutions," he continued. "Through meetings like this, we are able to build upon our strong military-to-military relations with our friends and to define better ways to work together. This forum allowed us to be open and frank in our discussions."
But one of the most powerful and fast-growing military forces in the region, China, was not represented, and nor were Taiwan and Russia. And China's absence reflects a serious problem the United States is trying to address.
Apart from geography and scale, the big difference between the Asia-Pacific theater and Europe is that there is no Asian or Pacific alliance like NATO that collectively safeguards the freedom and security of its member countries. In the Asia-Pacific, everything is based on long-standing bilateral relations and the personal military contacts developed over time.
"If I were to encounter an issue with most of the countries in the Asia Pacific right now, I would merely have to pick up the telephone and call someone I already know, I've already met, had a dialogue with, had some experience with, have some amount of trust with, and we can get things down," Fallon told a recent round-table conference in China.
Fallon and U.S. defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld want to bring China into this network of military connections and cooperation, a goal that took each of them to China for high-level talks with the Chinese military in the last month.
"We have had very, very little dialogue between the Chinese military and our military for a number of reasons for a lot of years. So I believe there is a lot of distrust, a lot of fear of the unknown," Fallon argues. So his message in China was simple: "Let's see what we can do to increase our interactions. Let's work on transparency and reciprocity."
"I believe it's important for more than just the U.S.-Chinese relationship, but the region can benefit from this," Fallon added. "It's been my experience as I traveled around to other countries in this area, where their concerned they don't want to see increased tension between the U.S. and China. It's not in their interest. They don't want to be in the middle of some pushing contest, or appealing for support."
These personal contacts are flourishing with India, Asia's other fast-rising power. After the recent Kashmir earthquake, Fallon telephoned his Indian counterpart and asked how he could help with the relief effort. After last December's massive tsunami, Adm. Walter Doran, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, called the Indian chief of naval staff, Adm. Arun Prakash, to let him know an American carrier strike group would be operating in the Indian Ocean to provide relief to Aceh so Indian forces also operating in the area would not be surprised. Doran and Prakash are old friends, both graduating in 1979 from a course at India's Defense Services Staff College.
Fallon's command runs from the Panama Canal to the Indian Ocean. It takes him 30 hours of flying time to get from one end of his fief to the other, and his area of responsibility includes 60 percent of the world's population, 50 percent of the earth's surface and the world's three most populous countries.
To patrol it, the U.S. Pacific fleet currently deploys 190,000 sailors and reserves and four aircraft carrier task forces. The Kitty Hawk is currently on exercise with the Japanese fleet. The new super-carrier Ronald Reagan is going through its final battle trials, along with a Canadian naval force . The Nimitz has just completed its Malabar exercise with the Indian fleet, including an Indian aircraft carrier and submarine for complex anti-submarine warfare strategies.
There are some 250 submarines of all nations operating in Fallon's vast zone of operations, but little real conventional threat to the dominance of the U.S. military. The real threat is uncertainty.
"The 52 million square miles of water surrounding Asia are filled with navigational choke points and sea lines of communication," says the mission statement of the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet. "More than half of Asia's oil is imported from the Middle East and must pass through the narrow Strait of Malacca before reaching its destination. Japan imports all its oil, and China saw its oil imports rise 31 percent in 2004. By 2010, Asia will import fully 74 percent of its oil -- all by sea. For America, it is vital that an area from which 50 percent of the world's economy is derived, and in which 60 percent of its population resides remains stable and prosperous. Any other scenario could mean economic and political chaos."
It is the prospect of that chaos, of unexpected events in the Strait of Malacca or the Straits of Taiwan, or of a sudden rise in tensions over disputed oil and gas fields where Japan and China have competing claims, that Fallon's personal diplomacy of contacts and cooperation is designed to prevent. And that is why one of his top priorities now is to ensure that China, after its no-show at Pearl Harbor this week, is represented at the next CHODS conference.