Gates is the first US defence secretary to visit Beijing in more than a decade [Reuters]
The US and Chinese defence chiefs have taken major steps towards mending frayed military relations between the two world powers despite frictions over US arming of Taiwan and trade issues.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, and his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, agreed on Monday in the Chinese capital, Beijing, to set up a working group to explore a more formal, regular dialogue on strategic issues.
The agreement, along with Gate’s visit to China, is seen as a bridge-building step. It marks the end of a rocky year in which Beijing cut off defence ties with the US over a $6.4bn arms sales to Taiwan in January last year.
Taiwan is an autonomous breakaway island that China claims as its territory.
Both defence chiefs urged a boost in military ties as a vital way to resolve disputes.
“Both of the two sides should make joint efforts to enlarge our common interests, resolve difficulties and disagreements and to make sure the relationship between the two militaries will move forward on the right track and in the stable manner,” Liang said.
On his part, Gates said that the US and China “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, the first US defence chief to visit China since 2000, is on the first leg of a four-day trip to Asia.
He extended an invitation to the chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) general staff to visit Washington in the first half of this year.
China has the potential to “put some of our capabilities at risk.”
Robert Gates, US defence secretary
“I come away from these meetings convinced that the PLA leadership is as committed to fulfilling the mandate of our two presidents as I am,” Gates said on Monday.
But the step forward on strategic talks falls short of protecting ties between the militaries from further ruptures.
Liang refused to guarantee that Beijing would refrain from suspending military ties in the future, especially if there are future arms sales to Taiwan.
Such arms sales “severely damage China’s core interests”, he said. He also insisted that the US needs to pay more attention to what China wants.
Gates’ visit to Beijing comes a week before Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, goes to Washington, and both governments are trying to smooth over substantial friction over trade, North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programmes and China’s generally more assertive diplomatic posture.
Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chang, reporting from Beijing, said: “There has been quite a lot of posturing between the two sides.
“You have got revelations from the Chinese of new developments in their military, including the Aircraft-Carrier Killer and also the Stealth Fighter.”
Gates has said that China’s rapidly developing defence capabilities are worrisome to the US.
China is thought to have made strides in building a new stealth fighter jet, and Washington is also concerned about a new ballistic missile that could theoretically explode a US aircraft carrier nearly 3,200km out to sea.
Beijing has also apparently surpassed US estimates to develop the jet and the missile.
En route to Asia on Sunday, Gates said that China had the potential to “put some of our capabilities at risk”.
“We have to pay attention to them. We have to respond appropriately with our own programs,” he said.
Gates and Liang denied on Monday that their governments are entering an arms race.
Liang, dressed in his military uniform, animatedly defended China’s growing capabilities, calling them “entirely appropriate and consistent with China’s rise as an economic and political power”.
When asked if China would eventually become a threat to US supremacy, Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Al Jazeera that China “is going to start asserting itself and become more aggressive”.
“Certainly not to crowd out the US but to equal the US as a power to be reckon with,” he said.