Quietly, out of the public eye, the US Coast Guard has been gradually expanding its exchanges with China's agencies engaged in maritime security.
Chinese law enforcement officers ride coast guard cutters patrolling North Pacific fishing areas. Chinese and US officers scrutinize port security on each other's coasts. The Chinese take part in joint training drills.
China, along with Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US attend an annual North Pacific Coast Guard Forum in Alaska.
And the coast guard has just posted a Chinese-speaking officer, Captain Barney Moreland, to the US embassy in Beijing to be a liaison with Chinese officials, including those dealing with port security. ?Most of the US$207 billion in Chinese exports to the US in the first nine months of this year were moved by ship.
All of this goes on despite often uneasy relations between the US and China.
"We put politics aside to focus on the mission," said Rear Admiral Sally Brice-O'Hara, who commands coast guard ships and sailors from Hawaii west to the shores of Asia.
The coast guard's exchanges are part of a US effort to engage China.
Military exchanges lapsed after Chinese authorities crushed a pro-democracy movement at Tienanmen Square in 1989 and a Chinese fighter plane collided with a US reconnaissance plane off Hainan in 2001.
Those exchanges have been revived by the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and carried out by the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon. The coast guard, which belongs to the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense, nonetheless coordinates its China exchanges with Fallon's Pacific Command.
Rumseld's successor, Robert Gates, indicated to the Senate Armed Services Committee in a prepared statement last week that he would continue those exchanges.
"I believe that expanded military exchanges with China can be valuable but should be based on China's willingness to reciprocate," he said.
The reasons for the exchanges are several. At the workaday level the Chinese are learning "best practices," or how things are well done, Brice-O'Hara said.
Strategically, the Pacific Command seeks to reassure the Chinese, who are suspicious of foreign powers, that the US is not planning to attack. Conversely, the US seeks to deter the Chinese from miscalculating and planning a war with the US.
In a related exchange, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson is scheduled to lead a high-powered delegation to Beijing next week for the first meeting of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue. ?His delegation is to include Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao (
Down at deck level, the coast guard cutter Rush called at the Chinese port of Qingdao recently to pick up an official of the Fisheries Law Enforcement Commission, Tan Lizhou. He came aboard to work with the crew as they checked on whether fishing boats in the North Pacific were operating in accord with international agreements intended to conserve dwindling stocks of fish there.
"We made him part of the crew," said Captain Dana Ware, then the skipper of the ship.