Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged firmer ties with China’s military warning that political frictions raised the risk of dangerous missteps between the two big powers.
Gates’s trip to China comes a week ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States for a January 19 summit with President Barack Obama.
US officials hope Gates’s visit will forge progress on security issues and help allay fears that Beijing, with its growing economic and military strength, is increasingly willing to defy US objectives, Reuters reports.
Those include a US push for Beijing to take a more assertive stand on Iran’s nuclear programme, to do more to rein in North Korea and to become less secretive about the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“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 told reporters after talks with Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie.
Military ties are among the most brittle links between the United States and China, grappling with trade and currency strains, security distrust and human rights disputes that have unsettled relations between the world’s biggest economy and the emerging number two.
FEAR OF MISHAPS
While military links do not feature in day-to-day dealings between Beijing and Washington, officials fear China’s growing strength raises the risk of military mishaps flaring into volatile disputes.
“In the ups and downs in Chinese-US relations, military ties are always the first to suffer casualties,” said Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia who specializes in Chinese security policy.
“You need to have greater communications and regular channels of communication to reduce the misperceptions and miscalculations and avoid accidents,” Yuan said in a telephone interview.
US and Chinese military ties were curtailed for much of 2010 after Beijing protested against Obama’s proposed arms sale to Taiwan, the self-ruled island China deems an illegitimate breakaway.
Gates’s trip is the most visible demonstration that relations have steadied. But security distrust remains deep. The United States is by far the world’s dominant military power, but China’s growing spending on defense has narrowed the gap to the point where some in Washington worry that the US security stake in Asia could be eroded.
Liang said China’s military technology was decades behind the world’s most advanced armed forces.
In 2010, Beijing bristled at US joint exercises with South Korea in seas near China, and denounced US pressure on Beijing to solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. US weapons sales to Taiwan remain a constant sore spot for Beijing. At the joint news briefing after his talks with Gates, Liang repeated his government’s opposition to the sales.