Defense chiefs from the US and China to meet next week amid a thaw in relations

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

US, China defense chiefs to meet amid thaw in ties

BEIJING — China’s defense minister will meet his U.S. counterpart at an international gathering in Vietnam next week as the two nations move to end an eight-month freeze on military exchanges, state media said Wednesday.

Gen. Liang Guanglie will meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a gathering of defense chiefs from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations that starts Tuesday in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, Xinhua News Agency quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Guan Youfei as saying.

Xinhua quoted Guan as saying the meeting between the two men would be “short but significant.”

China suspended such contacts in January to protest a $6.4 billion U.S. arms package for Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory. Beijing pointedly refused to invite Gates to visit during his trip to the region in June, leading U.S. officials to complain that the Chinese military was ignoring the importance of such contacts.

China signaled an end to the freeze last week when the Defense Ministry’s head of foreign affairs, Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, told visiting U.S. Assistant Deputy Defense Secretary Michael Schiffer that regular dialogue and exchanges on military safety at sea and other issues would be resumed.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday the two nations are looking for a mutually convenient time for Gates’ long-delayed visit — probably early in 2011.

The last significant exchange took place late last year when Gates invited Gen. Xu Caihou to the United States for a tour of the Pentagon and U.S. military installations. As one of two vice chairmen of the Communist Party committee that controls the military, Xu technically ranks higher than Liang, who is merely one of the 11-strong committee’s eight ordinary members.

Regional tensions and heated rhetoric have underscored the importance of regular contacts between the two militaries, much to the frustration of U.S. officers who complain of the lack of access to their Chinese counterparts.

China has been especially strident about U.S. involvement in territorial disputes in the South China Sea — which Beijing claims in its entirety — along with joint U.S.-South Korean anti-submarine drills in the Yellow Sea, part of which lies within Chinese sovereign waters.

Beijing has also angered Seoul by refusing to verify the findings of a study blaming North Korea for the sinking a South Korean navy ship in March that ratcheted up tensions across northeast Asia.

While U.S.-China military exchanges appear to be on the mend, they could soon face further Taiwan-related challenges.

A Taiwanese Defense Ministry spokesman said Wednesday the island was allocating money for possible U.S. help to upgrade its fleet of F-16 fighter jets. The statement came amid Taiwanese media reports that the Obama administration has agreed to upgrade the island’s fleet of American-made 146 F-16A/Bs, which it received more than a decade ago.

Taiwan is also hoping to buy an entirely new version of the F-16, the more advanced C/Ds, because the aircraft better suits Taiwan’s strategy for defending against Chinese threats to use force if necessary to bring the island under its control.

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