JINING, China — Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, paused before boarding a plane provided by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. He turned to the Chinese senior colonel who'd spent part of Tuesday afternoon escorting him around an army air base in eastern Shandong province and shook hands.
"I look forward to the day when our air forces are working together," Mullen said.
Mullen earlier had sat in the cockpit of an Su-27, a Russian-designed fighter jet, as news cameras clicked and whirred. He ate a buffet lunch with Chinese officers and posed for a group photograph on a basketball court. The admiral handed out a compass as a gift, and shook hands.
Much of Mullen's four-day visit with Chinese officers and officials this week seemed to boil down to similar moments, apparently looking for small steps forward in a geopolitical relationship that's as tenuous as it is important. Mullen departed China on Wednesday having had a lot of meet-and-greet moments and some frank conversation with Chinese military leadership, but no announcement of significant strategic accords.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The two countries agreed to conduct counter-piracy operations together in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, by the end of next year, and to a joint humanitarian and disaster relief exercise in 2012. There are also further visits on the schedule.
Neither side expects much else for now.
Perhaps more so than at any time since the Cold War ended, the United States is wrestling with the question of how to manage ties with a potential rival military whose ability to project power is growing rapidly.
In the South China Sea, the Chinese continue to push for expanding influence, leading to standoffs with U.S. allies such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Across the broader region, tensions between Beijing and other American allies, such as Japan and South Korea, also have continued to rise. China bristles at American naval exercises with such nations, while U.S. commanders point out that they're operating in international waters as they have for years.
Unlike Cold War foes, however, China does hundreds of billions of dollars in trade with America and is considered a key part of maintaining regional stability.
For example, Beijing is one of the few governments in the world with influence over North Korea, a nation whose potential for erratic, armed behavior presents a serious threat.
"I can't think of another place where there's more to be done and more to be gained than between the United States and China," Mullen said Sunday. He also acknowledged that "we need to work a lot harder on strategic trust and transparency."
China broke off military exchanges with the United States last year after Washington announced the sale of $6 billion-plus in arms to Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory. A deal that's being discussed in Washington either to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan or upgrade its existing F-16 fleet could produce the same result.
Asked whether he saw any solutions to the tensions, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said that while visits such as Mullen's helped, "the simplest way is that America could respect the sovereignty of China."
Even the top-level U.S. visits have produced awkward moments. During an ice-breaking trip to China by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January, the Chinese ran the first test flight of their J-20 stealth fighter jet even as Gates met with senior leadership in Beijing.
After Mullen's meetings Monday with his counterpart, Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of the army's general staff, Chen unloaded a wide array of finger-wagging criticisms of the United States at a joint news conference, saying, among other things, that the U.S. was spending too much on its military during an economic downturn.
Speaking of the U.S.-China relationship, Mullen said at the Jining base: "We're just beginning. ... We have a long way to go."
He noted earlier in the week that just being able to get Chen on the phone is an improvement, saying, "The potential for a positive outcome in a crisis is much higher if we have a relationship than if we don't."
In the meantime, China's first aircraft carrier, built on the bones of a Soviet-era ship, is expected to be unveiled in the near future and is seen as a symbol of Chinese military aspirations. While the Varyag pales in comparison with U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups — and may well serve as little more than a training vessel or a way of waving the Chinese flag on the open seas — Beijing officials have signaled it's just the beginning.
The state of the Chinese navy, Chen said Monday at the news conference with Mullen, is "not commensurate with the status of the country of China. Of course, I hope that in the future we will have aircraft carriers."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.