US Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno, left, shakes hands Feb. 21 with Fan Changlong, deputy chaiman of the Central Military Commission, in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang / AFP)
BEIJING — US Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno on Saturday said Beijing and Tokyo must enhance communication to avoid “miscalculations” amid a simmering territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
Odierno, a four-star general, spoke during a visit to China where he has held talks with military officials aimed at establishing a formal high-level dialogue between the US and Chinese armies in the coming months.
“We reinforced the importance of dialogue and discussion between the Japanese and the Chinese regarding this issue,” Odierno told reporters. “We have to be careful and ensure that there are no miscalculations along the way.”
Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a bitter territorial row over Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu.
Tensions between the two nations dramatically intensified after Japan nationalized some of the islands in September 2012, with ships and aircraft from both countries regularly patrolling waters around the contested territory.
The dispute has also on occasion come perilously close to boiling over into armed clashes.
Last February, Japan accused a Chinese frigate of directing a weapon-targeting radar at a Japanese warship in the East China Sea.
“We do have a treaty with Japan, a defense treaty, but the most important piece is that we in fact emphasize the importance of this continued dialogue to solve this problem,” Odierno said.
Dialogue at a standstill
Dialogue between China and Japan, however, has come to a virtual standstill as the island dispute has intensified.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have never held a formal bilateral summit, only short encounters at global and regional meetings.
The prospects for dialogue dimmed further in December when Abe visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine which honors Japan’s war dead including convicted war criminals who were executed at the end of World War II.
Beijing views the shrine as a symbol of Japanese war-time militarism and Tokyo’s lack of repentance for atrocities committed in the last century.
On Wednesday, Japan’s Jiji Press quoted Capt. James Fanell, intelligence chief for the US Pacific Fleet, as telling a forum that China has tasked its military to become capable of conducting “a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea.”
Odierno, however, dismissed such reports when asked to comment.
“I’ve seen no indications of that at all,” he said.
Odierno was scheduled for more talks on Saturday, traveling to China’s Shenyang Military Region, which borders North Korea.
“For me, we had frank, honest, important discussions about security, stability in the Asia-Pacific region” as well as beyond, he said of discussions in Beijing.
But Odierno emphasized that the talks centered on establishing “army-to-army dialogue” and were spurred by meetings held between Xi and President Barack Obama last year.
“Our visit has really focused on this dialogue and really working through our future military-to-military relationship,” he said.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the top US commander in the Pacific, expressed concern last month that he has no direct line to his counterpart in China in the case of a crisis in the region.
The United States and China agreed to set up a direct telephone link between the two countries’ defense ministries in 2008 — but it has yet to be tested in an emergency.
In December, a US-guided missile warship, the Cowpens, had to make a sharp turn to avoid colliding with a Chinese naval ship that cut in front of it, according to the Pentagon.
Odierno said that greater familiarity will lessen the chance of problems down the line.
“I think that enables you to reduce the risk of miscalculation,” he said.
“Throughout history miscalculation is what’s caused conflict. And our goal is to do all we can to make sure that we don’t have miscaculation.”