WASHINGTON: The complexities of the United States diplomatic and military relationships with the People’s Republic of China were on full view today as the U.S. Navy’s leader said he does not need a bigger force to manage our presence in the western Pacific.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, told several hundred people that the Navy has roughly 50 ships in the western Pacific on any given day and that is enough. Greenert told the event, organized by the Center for New American Security, that there is no “big naval buildup in the Far East” and the nation’s new heightened strategic focus on the Pacific won’t affect actual operations.

At the same time, Greenert noted that “this area is vital to the United States. We know that.” A map he shared with the audience made that clear. The Navy has 30 ships stationed off the US Atlantic coast; 15 ships on our Pacific coast; 30 ships around the Indian Ocean and 15 ships in the eastern Atlantic.

Pacific Command and its counterparts in the Chinese Navy are trying to create a new set of communication ‘protocols,’ Greenert said today. These are designed to ensure each side can clearly communicate its intentions in the region and help as a key mediation tool to cope with disputes between China, the U.S. or other countries in the region.

Current gaps in the way the US and PRC communicate provide the “opportunity for miscommunication,” Greenert said. The new protocols, based on a specific and mutual understanding of how U.S. and Chinese chains of command operate, can serve as a foundation for standardized communications.

In addition to the new protocols, Greenert said the U.S. is working with China and other countries in the region on “a concept of operations” for human disaster and relief operations. Given the often prickly claims and counterclaims over transit rights and often tiny specks such as make up much of the Spratly Islands, hammering out a standard set of responses to disasters like the great tsunami of 2004, could greatly speed responses at a critical time and improve everyone’s understanding of how its allies and competitors operate, lessening the chances for misunderstandings.

However, as Robert Kaplan,co-author of a new CNAS study on China, noted: “If you look at a map of all these conflicting claims, it makes you dizzy.”

And, just for some perspective, Greenert told the CNAS audience that what really keeps him up at night is, “what’s happening at the Straits of Hormuz.” He wouldn’t offer any details, but Iran has threatened several times since the New Year began to close the straits and has blustered that U.S. aircraft carriers must not return to the region.

Carlo Munoz contributed to this story.

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