U.S., China Seek to Mend Military Ties as Gates Accepts Invite

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "relying exclusively on bilateral relationships isn't enough -- we need multilateral institutions in order to confront the most important security challenges in this region." Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Defense Secretary Robert Gates accepted an invitation to visit China early next year as the world’s biggest militaries sought to mend ties strained by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and support for other Asian allies.

China’s Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie made the offer in a “very candid and constructive” meeting with Gates, said Guan Youfei, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of National Defense. It was the first high- level contact between the militaries since Beijing cut their relations over a proposal to sell weapons to Taiwan in January.

China will work to lift military ties with the U.S. “out of the current on-again, off-again cycle” and enable “a track of stable and steady development,” Guan told reporters in Hanoi, where a regional security meeting takes place tomorrow. “Issues such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are important impediments to a wider and deeper” relationship, he said.

The commitment to more talks with the U.S. came as Liang met separately with counterparts from Vietnam and Japan after Chinese run-ins with their vessels in disputed waters last month raised tensions in key shipping lanes. Gates reassured Asian countries that the U.S. remains committed to the region’s security, and pushed for multilateral solutions to disputes amid rising tension over China’s territorial claims.

“We border the Pacific Ocean; we have long-term interests here,” Gates said in a speech to military officials and students at Vietnam National University in Hanoi today. “All Asia can be confident” that the U.S. intends “to be an active participant, not only in economic and political matters, but also in defense and security,” he said.

‘Liaison System’

Liang and Japan’s Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, agreed in a meeting today to create a liaison system to prevent conflicts at sea, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Jiji Press. Two Chinese patrol boats withdrew on Oct. 5 from disputed seas administered by Japan a month after a maritime collision sparked a diplomatic feud between Asia’s two largest economies.

Liang met yesterday with Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nong Duc Manh and Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh to discuss deepening military ties, state-run Xinhua reported. Vietnam last week urged China to release a fishing boat and crew detained close to islands claimed by several neighboring countries.

China has resisted committing to a code of conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for disputed regional waters and is expanding its navy to project power beyond its borders, according to an August report by the U.S. Defense Department. It aims to solve all territorial disputes in one-on-one negotiations with claimant states.

Common Interest

“Relying exclusively on bilateral relationships isn’t enough -- we need multilateral institutions in order to confront the most important security challenges in this region,” Gates said. “The U.S. and Vietnam, as well as other nations in the region, also share a common interest in maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons.”

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei hold claims to islands in the South China Sea. At a Sept. 24 summit, Obama and Asean leaders “reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation,” according to a statement.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised China’s hackles in July when she called settling territorial disputes off China’s southern coast “a leading diplomatic priority.” The comments were “virtually an attack on China,” Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at the time.

U.S. Debt

The talks with Gates coincide with resumed maritime consultations between the U.S. and China scheduled for this week in Hawaii, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters Oct. 6.

China has opposed U.S. naval exercises in waters off its shores, and Chinese general Luo Yuan in August said that the government could retaliate through its holdings of $846.7 billion in U.S. Treasury securities. China is the biggest foreign holder of U.S. government debt.

The U.S. is concerned about China’s “tremendous investment” in maritime forces and “very aggressive” behavior off its East Coast, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, told reporters on Sept. 29.

The weaponry Taiwan planned to buy includes Lockheed Martin Corp. Patriot missiles valued at $2.8 billion, United Technologies Corp. UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters worth $3.1 billion, and Boeing Co. Harpoon missiles costing $37 million. China had said it planned to punish the companies involved.

Defense Spend

China announced in March it would spend 532.1 billion yuan ($79.6 billion) on defense this year; the Pentagon estimates that actual Chinese military spending is twice that amount. The Pentagon has requested a total of $708 billion for its operations, including money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The talks between Asean defense ministers and counterparts from the U.S., China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia are the first ever. Gates said the U.S. was an “enthusiastic participant” in the meeting and called for nations to discuss maritime security and “peacefully resolving issues.”

Military ties between the U.S. and China have faltered even as Obama seeks better relations on a range of issues including trade, climate change and defense. Obama is preparing to host Chinese President Hu Jintao for a state visit in Washington, possibly in January.

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