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US, China Hold 'Candid' Defense Talks

  • Al Pessin

Senior U.S. and Chinese defense officials meeting at the Pentagon Friday agreed on a series of talks and exchanges for next year, but did not agree to sustain the relationship through any disputes that may come up, as U.S. officials have said they want to do. China routinely breaks military relations with the United States to protest U.S. policies it dislikes.

U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy described the day-long talks as "candid" and "frank" - words officials usually use to signal disagreement. But she also said she was pleased with the substance of the talks, that they had a "good tone" and that they were "productive" in "improving the basis" for future cooperation.

"We heard the Chinese also embrace the idea of the value of having a steady and reliable and sustained dialogue. And that was very good news to us," she said.

But Under Secretary Flournoy would not say her Chinese counterpart General Ma Xiaotian made any commitment to stop freezing defense relations to protest U.S. policies. The U.S.-China defense relationship is just now coming out of an eight-month freeze China imposed to protest a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. Flournoy said Friday's 11th annual Defense Consultative Talks were part of the effort to "restart" the relationship.

U.S.-China military tensions have risen during the past year of limited communication, with a series of incidents in areas of the Western Pacific that China considers part of its exclusive economic zone. Flournoy said the two sides agree on the importance of maritime safety, but she said they disagree on some points of international law.

Chinese officials have made clear they will be more assertive in acting on their view of the law, both diplomatically and militarily, now that their military capability is increasing. China's defense budget is increasing by substantial amounts every year, and its military is fast evolving from an old-fashioned land-based force into a high-technology land, air and sea force.

Flournoy said the two sides talked about their concerns at Friday's talks.

"We had some good discussions about, frankly, concerns that we have and concerns that they have, on both sides. Again, I wouldn't highlight specific capabilities (of concern) as much as the need to be able to have fora where we can discuss, better understand their capabilities development, and most importantly their intent, and how this fits into their strategy and their doctrine," she said.

Flournoy repeated U.S. calls for more "transparency" in China's defense program, and said she tried to provide an example of transparency by giving the Chinese delegation the same briefing she has given allied nations on U.S. nuclear strategy, ballistic missile plans and space defense views. She said the Chinese delegation shared, in her words, "some of their thinking on their strategy and capabilities development."

"We have seen some gradual increases in China's transparency and also their candor with us on a variety of topics, particularly I'm speaking here of the Chinese military," she said.

Friday's talks also covered international issues. Flournoy said she highlighted Chinese efforts on sanctions against Iran, and also discussed cooperation on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the fight against pirates off the coast of East Africa. She said they also discussed the U.S. desire for China to do more to rein in North Korea's recent provocative behavior, as she said it has done during past periods of tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Flournoy did not say how the Chinese delegation responded, but on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman rejected a call for Chinese action on North Korea made by the top U.S. military officer during a visit to the region. China has called for talks, while the United States says North Korea must first stop launching attacks against South Korea.

Flournoy said Friday's talks helped prepare the groundwork for a visit to China by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, and a state visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao a few weeks later.

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