Mullen flies to China as US plans naval exercise

The top US military officer has left for China to bolster a fledgling security dialogue.

Washington: The top US military officer
has left for China in a trip designed to bolster a fledgling
security dialogue with Beijing, even as a US naval exercise in
the South China Sea threatens to upstage his visit.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs
of Staff, began the four-day tour that will include talks with
senior officers and a visit to military units, officials said
yesterday.

Mullen -- who in May hosted his Chinese counterpart,
People`s Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde --
"looks forward to continuing the engagement and dialogue" with
Chen in Beijing, the Pentagon said in a statement.

But the admiral`s trip coincides with a joint naval
exercise set for Saturday with the US, Japanese and Australian
navies in the South China Sea, where China has asserted
territorial claims.

US and Japanese officials said the exercise will
include the Japanese destroyer Shimakaze, an American
destroyer -- the USS Preble -- and a Royal Australian Navy
patrol boat.

The ships will carry out communications training and
other drills off Brunei, officials said.

The US Navy played down the exercise, with a
spokeswoman calling it a small-scale, "low-level" activity on
the sidelines of an international defence exhibition in
Brunei.

Lieutenant Commander Tamara Lawrence told AFP it was a
"passing exercise," which typically includes flag semaphore
drills, navigation and other exercises focused on "basic
seamanship."

China has objected to previous US naval drills in the
South China Sea, and tensions in the strategic and
resource-rich area have mounted in recent weeks.

The Philippines and Vietnam have expressed concern
over what they call China`s increasingly assertive stance in
the area.

Mullen`s visit also comes after the United States and
the Philippines carried out joint naval exercises, which
Manila and Washington insisted were aimed at deepening
military ties and not related to worries over China.

PTI