U.S., China defense chiefs mend frayed military ties

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BEIJING (AP) — The U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs took a step Monday toward mending frayed relations between their powerful militaries, though China warned ties could be cut again if Washington does not heed Beijing’s wishes.

Military contacts are fewer and less substantive than U.S.-Chinese interaction in the economic, political and diplomatic arenas, and both nations wanted to put a better face on the military relationship ahead of a high-stakes visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao next week.

The agreement stops short of the robust cooperation sought by Washington, and China pointedly refused to promise that friction over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan might not interfere.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Liang Guanglie, China’s defense minister, agreed after a morning of talks Monday to broaden some of their fragile military contacts and to study ways that the two nations might build a more formal structure for future talks. They set up a working group to look at establishing the larger and more enduring framework Mr. Gates wants.

Mr. Gates said the two nations agreed that military ties should be “solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds,” and he said he is sure that China‘s People’s Liberation Army is behind the idea “as much as I am.”

The sometimes hidebound PLA has resisted more regular contact out of apprehension or embarrassment, and Mr. Gates has said before that China‘s political leadership was quicker to see the value in better military ties with the United States.

The reluctance was evident Monday, despite Mr. Gates‘ optimism. The United States has been pressing China to give a firm date for the planned visit of China‘s chief of the Army general staff to Washington. Gen. Liang would not be pinned down, announcing only that a visit would happen sometime in the first half of 2011.

The agreement marks an end to a rocky year in which Beijing cut off defense ties with the United States over arms sales to Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims.

“On that, China‘s position has been clear and consistent,” Gen. Liang said. “We are against it.”

The arms sales “seriously damaged China‘s core interests, and we do not want to see that happen again,” he continued.

“We hope that U.S. arms sales will not again and further disrupt” military ties or the overall relationship, Gen. Liang said.

Gen. Liang, an Army officer, repeatedly warned that the United States should consider China‘s perspective.

The two nations also agreed to wider cooperation in such noncombat areas as counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations.

The United States has argued that a more formal arrangement would benefit both nations and help avert crises. More formal contacts and cooperation, including joint exercises and training, might also make it less likely that China would walk out on the arrangement.

Mr. Gates‘ four-day trip to Beijing includes meetings with the top political and military leadership and a visit to a Chinese nuclear weapons base.

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