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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie met at the Pentagon on Monday for wide-ranging talks aimed at strengthening security ties between the world’s strongest military and one that has been rapidly expanding its capabilities.

“The United States and China are both Pacific powers, and our relationship is one of the most critical in the world,” Panetta said Monday in a Pentagon news conference.

The two military leaders discussed issues including North Korea, cyberattacks, nuclear proliferation and free access to sea lanes near China — issues that have come between the countries in the past.

But they also discussed future cooperation on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, drug interdiction and counterpiracy measures. Panetta said the two nations would conduct an anti-piracy exercise later this year.

Liang said both sides are committed to building a strong military-to-military relationship based on “mutual respect” and “mutual benefit.” His invitation to Panetta to visit China in the near future, he said, represents “a turnaround” in relations between the countries after disagreements over arms sales to Taiwan.

Liang and an entourage of high-ranking Chinese officers visited Naval Base San Diego over the weekend, and following the Pentagon talks, Liang is scheduled to stop at the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command in Florida and meet with senior Marine noncommissioned officers at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Liang will also visit Fort Benning, Ga., and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., before wrapping up his trip with a visit Thursday to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The trip schedule is based on requests from the Chinese delegation, which is seeking to better understand the workings of the U.S. military.

China has been making vigorous moves lately to expand its influence, from deploying new weapons systems to seeking to enforce territorial claims on nearby countries. It raises questions the United States would like to have answered as well, a senior defense official who asked not to be identified told the press Monday.

“We would like to be able to understand a little bit more about why the Chinese are investing in this very robust and rapid military modernization program, given the security environment that we see in the Asia-Pacific today, which is a region that’s at peace,” the official said.

On the topic of cybersecurity — an area where U.S. officials regularly accuse China of conducting computer raids to steal U.S. military and business secrets — Liang denied China was targeting the United States. Both countries view cybersecurity as a top priority, he said.

“In our meeting, we do share the same position and the same view regarding cybersecurity,” Liang said.

Panetta did not contradict him in the joint press conference, saying the countries should work together to prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to cyberconflict.

Liang is the most senior Chinese military official to visit the United States in nine years, the Chinese defense minister said Monday. Military-to-military contact is resuming between the countries after it was broken off in 2010 after the United States signed a $6 billion arms deal with Taiwan, an island China calls an integral part of its territory.

Panetta said the U.S.’s recent much-heralded “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China’s growing influence. The United States wants to build relationships with nations there in order, Panetta said, to “deal with the common challenges that both the United States and China face in that region.”

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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