Beijing has given no formal reason for the decisions, although a series of comments from officials hinted at Chinese anger over recent US weapons sales to Taiwan and a meeting in October between the US president and the Dalai Lama.

 

But Keating at the time reacted angrily to the Chinese moves, especially its rejecting of a safe harbour request by the two minesweepers.

 

"It is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country who understands its obligations as a responsible nation," he told reporters in November.

 

'Cooperation'

 

Commenting on Keating's visit to Beijing, China's defence ministry said it hoped the planned talks would foster stronger Sino-US military ties.

 

"China takes a positive attitude towards developing military relations with the United States, and hopes Keating's visit could further enhance understanding, expand consensus and boost cooperation," it said.

 

China-US relations have had a mixed record in recent months, with the US expressing concerns over China's test of a space weapon and warnings from the US secretary of state that China's military activities were "outsized".

 

Later in 2007 however, a visit to Beijing by Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, resulted in plans to set up a military hotline between Washington and Beijing to increase transparency and reduce the risk of accidental conflict.

 

But that apparent improvement in relations was quickly followed by the block on US ships entering Hong Kong, prompting an angry reaction from the Pentagon and once again putting a chill on relations.