WASHINGTON — Military officials will establish a hot line connecting the U.S. Defense Secretary and his Chinese counterpart within the next two months, a move the head of U.S. Pacific Command called another small step in improving relations between the countries.

“We’re making progress, but we still have a long way to go,” Adm. Tim Keating told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

U.S. officials have been pushing for the direct line for months, as part of efforts to improve communications between the countries.

Keating said such a hot line is critical to make sure “misunderstandings” don’t turn into more significant incidents, specifically citing the 2006 surfacing of a Chinese submarine near a U.S. carrier fleet conducting exercises in the Pacific Ocean.

“They (the Chinese) had every right to be there, since it was open water,” he said. “But the potential for not understanding their intent was real.”

Despite the hot line, Keating told lawmakers that Chinese military officials have been cordial but coy in their dealings with the United States.

During a trip to China in January, Keating met with a number of senior defense officials and noted everyone had a landline and cell phones in their office.

“I have seen some of these senior officers three times,” he said. “I’d say to every one of them, ‘Can I have your phone number? Because I’d like to call you … if there’s an emergency or a misunderstanding,’ I couldn’t get any phone numbers.”

“We’re better friends with them than we were a year ago, but we still have a long way to go. Even then, the breakdown of decades-old mistrust and custom is going to take a lot more effort.”

Several senators criticized the Chinese government for its lack of transparency, noting large increases in defense spending with little public disclosure of their intent.

“These people have got to remove themselves from the dark ages if they want to be respected by other military powers,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., ranking member on the committee.

Keating said Chinese officials have shown little interest in midlevel officer exchanges.

Officials have discussed a joint humanitarian military exercise in the next few months.

And Keating emphasized that he has no reason for increased concern with the Taiwan presidential election scheduled for March 22, noting officials have no indication that Chinese military officials will interfere with the process.

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