China, U.S. agree to take steps to heal military rift

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart Monday called for greater cooperation between the two countries' militaries, but their talks fell short of any concrete plans to formalize ties that were broken off by Beijing last year.

China agreed to set up working groups with the U.S. on key issues such as nuclear policy and missile defense without any definite schedule. But those groups would be limited only to exploring the possibility of a future "strategic dialogue" and wouldn't actually discuss the issues themselves.

A meeting between Gates and Vice President Xi Jinping, next in line to be China's president, produced a wooden statement by Xi that noted that the U.S.-China military is a "sensitive field."

The ambiguity of Beijing's position suggested that military relations with China remain estranged a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit Washington.

Still, the remarks by Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Lian Guanglie at a news conference Monday were mostly positive, a notable shift in tone since the Chinese military severed talks with the U.S. a year ago after the U.S. announced a $6 billion-plus arms deal with Taiwan, China's longtime rival and an island China considers to be part of its sovereign territory.

"We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances 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.

"There are new opportunities for the two countries to further develop ties," Lian said.

Lian made clear, however, that there are still sore feelings surrounding the Taiwan arms deal.

He warned that U.S. sales of advanced weaponry to Taiwan "jeopardized China's core interests."

"We do not want to see such things happening again," Lian said, according to the translation carried by Chinese state media. "We do not want U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan to further damage the relationship between China and the United States and the two nations' armed forces."

Gates' three-day trip to China is his second since taking office in December 2006. He's also scheduled to stop in Japan and South Korea, an itinerary that emphasizes tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies.

American officials backed Japan in a standoff with China last year over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain that ended with Beijing cutting off crucial mineral exports to Japan. The U.S. also stood by the South Korean government when China refused to condemn North Korea after a South Korean warship was torpedoed in March, killing 46 sailors, and after an artillery barrage that killed four on a South Korean island in November.

Lian, however, tried to play down growing concerns about China's military ambitions.

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

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have appeared caught off guard by a series of announcements about Chinese weapons systems that could challenge American reach in the region.

In December, the head of U.S. Pacific Command told a Japanese newspaper that the Chinese had achieved "initial operational capability" of a ballistic missile, the Dong Feng 21D, that's designed to sink aircraft carriers. Last week, photographs of China's first stealth fighter jet, the J-20, were posted to the Internet, which many interpreted as a message from the Chinese military that it's committed to producing advanced weaponry.

In comments to reporters during the flight to Beijing, Gates acknowledged that the Chinese "clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk," but he added that he hopes the strategic dialogue he planned to push for in Beijing would reduce "the need for some of these capabilities."

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