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Admiral Mullen Does China: A Debriefing (Of Sorts)

July 30, 2011

US Admiral Mike Mullen

Unlike his predecessors, Admiral Mike Mullen probably spends more time than anyone else contemplating the growing strength of the Chinese military. After all, the seasoned Navy veteran’s stay in office is preoccupied with assessing the rise of a major Pacific power that plans on debuting its first aircraft carrier late this year. What goes on inside his brain when he thinks of China?

So on Sunday July 10 Admiral Mullen, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military, arrived in Beijing on a four day mission to bolster defense ties. (In other words, keeping tab on what the other guy is doing.) Though not the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit China, Mullen did spend the better part of a week engaged in ‘safe’ photo friendly activities and stiff protocol. He was uncharacteristically exposed and conspicuous.

Mullen’s visit comes amid a new round of tension in the South China Sea as several South East Asian countries are renewing their aggressive claims over a contested island group. The row is especially vitriolic between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines with the latter already holding limited joint exercises involving U.S. Navy warships.

The strain didn’t impose on Mullen’s PR stunt, which grabbed more than the usual amount of headlines. Upon arrival Admiral Mullen’s itinerary included a Q&A session in Beijing’s Renmin University and a visit to the HQ of the 2nd Artillery Division. On Monday Mullen was in the Defense Ministry and subsequently met with Vice President Xi Jinping.

More visits to military bases followed, including the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division’s HQ and a PLAAF airbase where an Su27 pulled off mid air stunts. Before leaving in the morning after Admiral Mullen had the privilege of actually setting foot on a Yuan class submarine. (Pictured above.)

The real significance of such gestures—2011 has so far proven rather heavy on the official US/China diplomatic exchange front—pales whenever a flare up puts everyone on the defensive again. Exactly what happened earlier this week when two PLAAF Su27s buzzed a U2 spy plane, thereby compelling Taiwan to deploy F16s.

Such is the beauty of subterfuge.

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