As an element of the military-to-military engagement between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) provides an operator-level exchange to discuss issues of maritime safety at sea. In early 1998, our Secretary of Defense and the Minister of Defense for the PRC signed an agreement to set the MMCA into motion. The first annual MMCA meeting took place in Beijing in July 1998 to establish a timeline and goals for two subsequent working group meetings that recently have just been completed.
Delegations from the two countries were constituted with postmajor command captains as the delegation heads. A mix of naval surface and aviation officers as well as Air Force, Coast Guard, and Army officers comprised the teams. Interpreters, attaches, and a JAG provided staff support.
In late 1998, the first working group meeting was held in San Diego to meet the charter established by the respective Ministers of Defense. Among the issues discussed were those of communications at sea between ships and aircraft from an operator's perspective of techniques and procedures. Most of us have had an opportunity to exchange international signals with foreign vessels at sea, but rarely with Chinese ships or aircraft. The MMCA provides a forum for discussing specifics that will ensure common understanding of operating procedures between vessels of the U.S. Navy and the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN).
The second working group met in Beijing with the American naval attaché before proceeding to Qingdao, the North Sea Fleet headquarters of the PLAN, in May 1999. In addition to discussing communication issues from the PLANs perspective, tours of the naval museum and their newest guided-missile destroyer, the Harbin, yielded excellent opportunities to exchange ideas and deepen our mutual understanding of each other's capabilities and procedures.
In recent years, ships of the U.S. Navy and PLAN have begun making visits to each other's ports as another element of the military-to-military engagement plan. As these visits continue and as the PLAN expands its fleet and operating areas, encounters at sea will become more frequent. It is prudent to have a forum to discuss any perceived deviations or differences of interpretation over international regulations. Our brief experience interacting with the professionals of the PLAN was very rewarding. In addition to confirming the similar international practices, our officers gained a broader understanding of issues from the Chinese perspective.
Maintaining an open forum for discussing operator-level concerns and interoperability standards is an essential element to our relationship with China. Although there always will be cultural differences, it is necessary to meet periodically to ensure misunderstandings are minimized and prevented whenever possible. The Chinese' views on maritime issues differ from our own in many regards, and often they are based on historic and cultural principles that are unfamiliar to Americans. As important as we consider our own views and principles, reaching a common understanding requires studying the perspective of our counterpart. We must each work toward building mutual understanding of the other's perspective, and how international laws and regulations apply, in order to operate safely in the same waters and airspace.
One specific example of how the historic Chinese perspective impacts maritime safety and communications can be found in the Chinese coastal waters. The mission of homeland defense has been the bedrock of Chinese foreign policy for centuries, and interaction with foreign vessels beyond the scope of defense was not consider. China has maintained this large coastal-defense navy even as their blue-water capability and high-seas interaction are increasing. Because of the infrequent encounters with foreign naval vessels in their coastal waters, many of these patrol craft are less familiar with and less practiced in international signaling. Consequently, as we learned through our discussions, the area we are most likely to encounter each other during port visits is also the area we are most likely to have difficulty in communicating.
The MMCA provides an excellent venue to continue expanding discussions directed toward conducting safe and meaningful operations on the high seas. Future discussions may explore unique situations, such as rescue at sea or humanitarian assistance. The specific charter for each working group is determined at the annual meetings and considers the priorities of each nation. These first two working groups provided a study report for review at the next annual MMCA meeting that will be instructive in determining areas for further discussion.
As a result of the tragic bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the future of MMCA and other engagement initiatives remains in question. The great successes of recent MMCA working group meetings and port visit exchanges of naval vessels should provide hope that these initiatives may continue.