WASHINGTON — In a clear sign of a warming trend in U.S.-China relations, Washington and Beijing have agreed to resume military-to-military contacts at the highest level.
In response to an invitation from China, the Clinton administration will send Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Cutler Blair, to Beijing in coming months.
The invitation was extended during 14 hours of talks in Washington this week between top Pentagon policymakers and Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of the Chinese army's general staff.
"I think we are on track to getting military-to-military relations back at a normal state of affairs," Cohen said Thursday.
The extended talks and the planned visits are viewed as indicators that Sino-American ties are gradually returning to normal more than eight months after a U.S. Stealth bomber operating as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led air campaign against Yugoslavia attacked the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade--apparently by mistake.
Yet major differences over U.S. intentions to supply advanced ballistic-missile systems to Taiwan serve as a warning that rough times still lie ahead in one of America's most important relationships.
"In terms of toughness, we had our most intense moments on TMD and Taiwan in general," said a senior Pentagon official who declined to be named. TMD is the Pentagon abbreviation for "theater missile defense," an antimissile system designed to protect a battlefield or relatively small region from short- or medium-range missiles.
The United States is developing a series of weapons that could be deployed as part of a theater missile defense. The Pentagon has proposed selling Taiwan one such weapon, a seaborne antimissile system carried on a frigate or destroyer.
The White House has yet to approve the sale, which Beijing strenuously opposes. China is concerned that such a sale would embolden the leaders of the island, which Beijing considers a renegade province, and also draw Taiwan into a deeper military relationship with the United States.
"They are clearly trying to play aggressively and publicly on this . . . [but] we've made our position clear to them that our desire is to maintain stability," the official said.
Earlier this week, a senior Chinese official underscored Beijing's objections to the proposed arms sales but said it has no objection to a U.S. missile-defense system in the region designed solely for the protection of American forces.
"If the United States wants to develop a system for its own defense needs, that's the business of the United States, [but] what we don't want to see is a theater missile system covering Taiwan," the official said. "That would severely damage U.S.-China bilateral relations."
Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, briefing reporters on this week's talks, said neither side changed the other's views on topics of disagreement, including Taiwan.
"There were clear statements of strongly different views on a number of subjects," Slocombe said, adding that there also were areas of agreement, such as the need to prevent North Korea from building nuclear arms.
Blair will probably go to China in February or March, and Cohen in April, officials said.