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At Beijing talks, Gates falls short of goals

The U.S. defense chief finds a willingness to boost military cooperation, but tensions remain over Taiwan and Chinese weapons.

January 10, 2011|By David S. Cloud and Barbara Demick | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his Chinese counterpart said Monday that they would look for ways to deepen military cooperation, but tensions over Taiwan arm sales and China's modernization of its armed forces remained unresolved.

Beginning a three-day visit to China, Gates said China had accepted his invitation for Gen. Chen Bingde, a senior Army officer, to visit Washington this year and had agreed to consider regular talks on nuclear posture, missile defense and cyber warfare.

But the U.S. had sought specific dates for Chen's visit, a request that was rebuffed, and only managed to win Chinese assent to establish a working group of officials from both countries to discuss how to structure the "strategic dialogue" that the Pentagon hopes to initiate with Chinese military leaders.

One of Gates' priorities during his visit is to win Beijing's agreement for closer military ties, a goal that Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie said China shared in a joint press conference in which both men stressed the importance of regular contacts to ease tensions and prevent miscalculations between the two powers.

"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.

But instead of a specific commitment to expand ties, Chinese officials appear intent only on smoothing over lingering tensions ahead of a visit to Washington by China's president, Hu Jintao.

Liang made clear China's continuing opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, an issue that has caused repeated ruptures, most recently last January when Beijing broke off military contacts after the announcement of a $5.4-billion sale to Taiwan.

China "does not want to see U.S. arms to Taiwan again," Liang said, adding that he hoped the U.S. "will pay attention to the concerns of the Chinese side."

He also played down U.S. concerns about China's effort to develop advanced fighters, missiles capable of destroying aircraft carriers, and other weapons that appear aimed primarily at countering U.S. capabilities.

"The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least two to three decades," he said. "There are some people who want to label China's military development as a threat to the world. I wish other countries would come up with a more reasonable conclusion."

Pentagon officials believe that Hu, who is preparing to step aside, and other civilian Chinese leaders want to improve relations with the Pentagon but face opposition from within their own military and among hardliners in Chinese leadership.

Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert at Beijing's Renmin University, said: "China wants to make military-to-military relations more predictable and sustainable. Towards that end, some institutionalization is necessary. We would like to see some mechanisms that will normalize military relations.''

Later Monday, at the Great Hall, Gates met with Xi Jinping, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, who also stressed the need for closer ties. Where there are disagreements, the two governments should "properly handle the disputes and the sensitive issues between us and make sure the bilateral relations continue to advance on the right track," Xi said.

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