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U.S., China agree to improve military ties, with few hard commitments

BEIJING — Chinese defense leaders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed on the importance of improved military relations, but left their first meetings with few specifics on how to make that happen — and no guarantees that the Chinese won’t halt the relationship again.

“We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chance of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds,” Gates said Monday.

Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie said their meeting was “positive, constructive and productive,” and said the Chinese fully agreed on the importance of setting “sustained and reliable” military-to-military relations, using Gates’ words from one day earlier.

The event marks a new beginning after a rough year between the two sides during which China protested U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and canceled a Gates visit last June, Washington cajoled Beijing to take stronger actions against North Korean military aggression, and the U.S. ramped up military exercises in the Yellow Sea.

Pressed to say whether the People’s Liberation Army would again cut off ties if the U.S. sold arms to Taiwan, Liang gave a strong, yet noncommittal, response.

“China’s position has been clear and consistent. We are against it,” he said, “because U.S. arms sales to Taiwan seriously damaged China’s core interests, and we do not want to see that happen again.”

Liang added he hoped the U.S. “will pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the Chinese side,” regarding obstacles to the military relationship.

Gates said he assured Liang that U.S exercises in the region “have not been directed in any way at China.” Rather, he said, they were meant to deter future North Korean provocations.

Both men were asked whether China’s anti-ship missiles and stealth fighter developments and the U.S. investments in countermeasures to them were a nascent sign of an arms race.

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Liang said those weapons are to protect China’s sovereignty and security interests and are not targeted at any other country.

“We can by no means call ourselves an advanced military force,” Liang said. “The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least, I think, two to three decades.”

China saw Gates’ visit this week as a chance to set a cordial tone before Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama meet in Washington next week. On Monday, Gates said China was receptive to nearly every U.S. desire to move forward with the relationship.

To that end, the defense leaders announced that Chief of the General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde, counterpart to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, will visit the United States this year.

Gates said he hoped his own visit would result in progress toward a formal strategic security dialogue — regular and standing talks on nuclear weapons, missile defense, space and cybersecurity issues. Liang promised to hold joint talks to discuss the idea in the first half of this year.

The sides also agreed consider joint military activities, Gates said, including maritime search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterpiracy and counterterrorism. But no schedule of exchanges, exercises or meetings was announced.

Gates met with Gen. Xi Jinping, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and heir apparent to Hu, and Gen. Xu Caihou, another vice chairman.  

The secretary is to meet Hu on Tuesday and China’s nuclear strike commander on Wednesday.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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