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Thursday, January 20, 2011

US, China defense officials work to mend military ties

By John Pomfret
Washington Post
BEIJING — One of China’s top generals said yesterday that it was up to the United States to change its policies if it wants better ties with China’s military, but he offered a partial endorsement of US programs designed to bring the two sides closer together.

Minister of Defense Liang Guangjie made the comments after two hours of talks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who last traveled to China in 2007.

Gates is on a mission to restore high-level military contacts with the People’s Liberation Army after Beijing’s decision to cut those ties a year ago, when the United States announced a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

Liang also denied that China’s military modernization — and its development of systems such as an aircraft-carrier-killing ballistic missile, antisatellite weapons, and a new stealth fighter — posed a threat to the United States.

“We cannot call ourselves an advanced military country,’’ Liang told reporters. “The gap between us and advanced countries is at least two to three decades.’’

Liang reacted tepidly to Gates’ proposal that the US and Chinese militaries engage in a wide-ranging strategic dialogue on nuclear posture, cyberwarfare, and North Korea, saying the PLA was “studying it.’’

He did announce that one of China’s most senior generals, Chen Bingde, the chief of the PLA’s general staff, would travel to the United States during the first half of this year. But, contrary to the wishes of his American counterparts, he did not specify a date for the trip.

Liang also reiterated the PLA’s commitment to pursuing joint work with the US military on counterterrorism, counterpiracy, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. But those issues had been agreed upon already during the last high-level meeting between the two sides in October 2009.

Despite Liang’s responses, Gates — who has dealt with China for decades and, as a senior CIA official, was one of the architects of an earlier, very productive, intelligence relationship with Beijing — pronounced himself pleased with the talks.

“I am confident,’’ Gates said, “that we are on the road to fulfilling the mandate that our two presidents have given us to strengthen the military-to-military relationship.’’

Asked whether he had changed his position that the PLA was the main impediment to better military ties, Gates said he was “optimistic’’ that the PLA “is as committed to fulfilling the mandate of our two presidents as I am.’’

Liang’s lukewarm reaction to Gates’s proposals reflects a continued uncertainty within the PLA about whether to embrace better ties with the United States; it also underscores the sense that the PLA was strong-armed by China’s political leadership into welcoming Gates on this trip.

Gates was rebuffed by the PLA in June when he tried to come to Beijing.

But President Hu Jintao travels to Washington next week for his second — and probably last — summit with President Obama and, as part of his legacy, needs to have military ties restored. Hu is expected to step down in 2012.

Gates and others in the US government have long argued that the United States and China need to improve military ties in order to lessen the possibility that miscalculation or misunderstanding could lead to war.

The Obama administration got a taste of the potential dangers less than two months after coming into office when Chinese merchant ships menaced and then narrowly missed ramming a US Navy reconnaissance vessel in international waters off China’s southern coast.

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