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ARLINGTON, Va. – The “on again, off again cycle” of military cooperation between China and the United States has to end, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday during a long-awaited visit to the Pentagon.

In an hour-plus, closed-door session that also touched on Iran, North Korea and the war in Afghanistan, Gates welcomed Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman to the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission, for what defense aides have described as an “overdue” visit.

Gates told Xu their military-to-military relationship was a “key underpinning” to the larger rapport between the superpowers, according to Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, who briefed reporters shortly after the general’s visit.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Beijing next month and has met China’s President Hu Jintao at international summits in London and New York this year. But Xu is the first high-ranking Chinese military counterpart to visit Gates during his term as secretary, and the first to visit Washington since 2006. Gates went to Beijing last year.

The U.S. and Chinese sides agreed to meet again at defense and maritime policy talks scheduled for December. Xu was particularly interested in the idea of greater military exchanges, especially between junior officers and noncommissioned officers, Morrell said. The two countries also agreed to conduct a joint maritime search-and-rescue exercise.

Xu leaves Washington on Wednesday to tour several U.S. military installations, stopping at Pacific Command in Honolulu.

Morrell said the secretary welcomed China’s recent signs of greater budget transparency.

PACOM commander Adm. Robert Willard told reporters in Seoul last week that he viewed the uncertainty behind China’s recent military buildup as one of his greatest concerns. Xu, in a speech on Monday at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that buildup was defensive only.

“We will never seek hegemony, military expansion or an arms race,” said Xu.

Morrell also said both sides clearly agreed Iran’s nuclear ambitions deserved addressing.

“As for how to do that, I think it’s clear that the Chinese were very much encouraging of President Obama’s efforts to try to deal with the Iranians first and foremost through engagement, through diplomacy, through outreach on that front. I think they very much want to see the conversations that are thus far begun carried forth,” Morrell said.

He added that Gates responded by saying, “obviously that is something that we are committed to, but obviously our patience is not indefinite. There needs to be progress on the Iranian side and it needs to happen soon.”

“There was certainly broad agreement on the importance of and how to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan … that is in both of our national security interests,” Morrell said.

Gates said U.S. and China already partner in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, counterpiracy, counterterrorism, counterproliferation and counternarcotics.

He also thanked the Chinese for their help recovering remains of U.S. servicemembers lost in previous wars.

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