YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – China publicly signaled this week that it is open to restoring bilateral military relations with the United States, which were suspended in January following U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The two militaries will “conduct dialogue and exchange at an unspecified time in the future,” said Qian Lihua, director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, according to a Xinhua News report late Tuesday.
The bilateral talks would include an annual meeting on maritime military safety, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
Qian made the remarks in Beijing to a U.S. delegation headed by Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.
Pentagon officials consider this the end of China’s freeze on military engagements, and there have been discussion about Defense Secretary Robert Gates visiting Beijing.
“No decisions were made but we may see something on that in the future,” Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said.
On Sept. 9, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Chinese government officials had expressed a desire to renew relations. Qian’s remarks represent China’s most public step toward reconciliation since January, when Beijing cut off military exchanges following a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
The U.S. has regularly sold arms for decades to autonomous Taiwan, which the U.S. has sworn to protect but China views as its province.
Qian also explained China’s objections to recent U.S.-South Korea military drills in the neighboring Yellow Sea, according to Xinhua.
Pentagon officials have stated that the exercises are intended to deter North Korea from military action. Both Seoul and Washington blame the March 26 sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo attack, which Pyongyang has vehemently denied.
Military relations between the U.S. and China have grown frostier in recent years as China’s rapidly modernizing military has shown its willingness to back up Beijing’s claims on most of the East China Sea and virtually all of the South China Sea, despite the objections of the U.S. and neighboring countries.
Officials with the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, have told Stars and Stripes that Chinese vessels this year have repeatedly obstructed or shadowed their ships within the international waters bordering China.
The olive branch for the U.S. also comes just days after China took an aggressive stance toward Japan that alarmed nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
China successfully demanded that Japan hand over a captain whose fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Japanese-administrated Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own.
China then called for compensation for the captain’s arrest, which Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan rejected Sunday.