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Defense Secretary Gates to meet Chinese counterpart in Hanoi, officials say

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:30 AM

The Pentagon, signaling a thaw in its frozen relationship with the Chinese military, announced Tuesday that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will meet with a Chinese counterpart next week in Vietnam and then will probably visit Beijing early next year.

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Ties between the world's two most powerful militaries have been suspended since January, when the People's Liberation Army protested a $6.4 billion arms deal between the United States and Taiwan by cutting off most dialogue with the Pentagon.

Since then, cooperation between the two superpowers has been elusive on high-stakes security issues, including efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program and to hold North Korea accountable for the sinking of a South Korean warship.

Although no one expects resumed military ties to result in any immediate agreements, analysts said that, with China's military taking an increasingly prominent role in fashioning China's foreign policy, it's good news that the People's Liberation Army has agreed to talks again.

The move was seen as another step to improve ties between Beijing and Washington in the run-up to a visit by China's president Hu Jintao early next year.

On Wednesday, Pentagon officials said Gates is scheduled to meet Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister, at an Asian security conference in Hanoi.

China's Defense Ministry spokesman Guan Youfei told the state-owned Xinhua News Agency that the meeting would be "short but significant."

China has also re-extended an invitation for Gates to visit Beijing, a trip which is likely to happen early next year, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. Gates had planned to travel to Beijing last summer, but China told him to stay away because of the spat over Taiwan.

U.S. officials have long pressed for a resumption in military relations, arguing that the freeze only led to increased suspicions about both sides' intentions. The Pentagon has expressed concern about China's aggressiveness in maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors, including Japan and Vietnam. U.S. military leaders are also worried about China's booming defense budget and its development of a ballistic missile that could target aircraft carriers, which have been used by the U.S. Navy to project unrivaled power in the Pacific since World War II.

"The concern is that I can't sit down and talk to them," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor last week. "I certainly don't have an expectation I'll sit down and have a discussion with them and we'll agree on everything. But I think it's dangerous to not be able to discuss the issues, even if we agree to disagree."

A low point came in June, when Gates and Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, gave duelling speeches at a security conference in Singapore, with each blaming the other for the breakdown in the relationship.

China's recent aggressive behavior in Southeast and East Asia has resulted in unintended benefits to the United States. Washington has bolstered alliances and cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia, prompting some in Beijing to view that as an attempt to rein in Chinese influence.

Signs that the relationship was thawing emerged in early September during a visit to China by Larry Summers, then chairman of the National Economic Council and Thomas Donilon, deputy national security adviser. During the trip, Donilon met Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Late last month, Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, traveled to Beijing for two days of talks. That resulted in an agreement to hold a limited meeting on maritime security issues next week in Hawaii. More wide-ranging defense talks, to be hosted by Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, are in the works for November or December in Washington.

Correspondent William Wan contributed to this report from Beijing.

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