By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 6:28 PM
HANOI - In the history of diplomatic breakthroughs, it didn't look like much. There was a handshake in front of a couple of cameras, followed by 30 minutes of carefully planned dialogue in a hotel conference room here.
But the meeting Monday between Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, the minister of defense, marked the first time that the two superpowers' top military leaders have engaged in talks for nearly a year.
"How are you?" Gates said, extending his hand with an open smile. Liang responded in kind in Chinese and followed later with a formal invitation for Gates to visit Beijing next year.
The niceties put a veneer on a troubled relationship that has fueled worries throughout the Pacific Rim since January, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army cut off most contact with the Pentagon to protest a $6.4 billion arms deal between the United States and Taiwan.
Since then, cooperation on security issues between China and the United States has suffered, with both sides doubting each other's motives on issues large and small, from tensions on the Korean Peninsula to naval exercises in international waters that were once seen as routine. Still, it is not expected that cooperation will suddenly improve, as distrust dominates the military relationship and China is particularly reluctant to engage in substantive talks.
The chill in relations has come at a time when other Asian countries have become increasingly concerned about China's aggressive military buildup and its assertive actions in maritime territorial disputes in the region. As a result, longtime U.S. allies such as Japan - and newer partners, such as Vietnam - have turned to Washington for support as they seek a counterweight to Chinese influence.
Gates and other U.S. officials have pressed China for months to resume military ties, arguing that a lapse in communications only exacerbates mistrust. In particular, Gates has pushed China to allow him to come to Beijing. China had previously extended such an invitation this year but withdrew it as part of its protest of the Taiwan arms deal.
"When there are disagreements, it's all the more important to talk to each other more, not less," Gates told reporters Monday after his session with Liang.
Guan Youfei, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China's Ministry of National Defense, told reporters in Hanoi that Beijing agreed to the resumption of military ties in an attempt to break their "current on-again, off-again cycle."
Guan was the PLA officer who on May 24 during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner lambasted the United States for 20 minutes, blaming Washington for the troubles in its relations with Beijing.
Analysts have said a military rapprochement was likely, given that the White House is preparing to host Chinese President Hu Jintao for a visit next year. Although Washington and Beijing have been squabbling over political and economic issues, only the military side of the relationship had experienced a complete breakdown.
As China has gained economic and military clout, it has complained more loudly about Washington's long-standing practice of selling arms to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue, breakaway province even though it boasts a vibrant democracy. Guan told reporters in Hanoi that the Taiwan arms sales remain "important impediments to a wider and deeper" relationship.
Gates said he reminded Liang that the arms sales and Washington's relations with Taiwan were political decisions made by U.S. lawmakers, and that the U.S.-China military relationship should not be held hostage over Taiwan. "If there's a discussion to be held, it's at the political level," Gates said he told Liang.
As Gates presses for closer ties with the Chinese military, he has had to walk a fine line with Asian allies who have come to see the United States as a safeguardagainst Beijing's expanding power in the region.
For example, Vietnamese officials applauded in June when Clinton visited Hanoi and declared that the United States considered freedom of navigation in the region to be a "national interest," implicitly rejecting Chinese claims to own all of the South China Sea and other disputed waters in Asia.
Gates is in Hanoi for a regional conference of Asian defense ministers, and Vietnamese officials and other delegates are listening closely for signs of whether he will similarly stand up to China or ease Washington's stance in hopes of improving ties with Beijing.
In a speech at the Vietnam National University on Monday, Gates did not mention the South China Sea directly, but did refer to the importance of ensuring "maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons."
Although those comments were greeted eagerly by Vietnamese officials, there are also lingering doubts about Washington's long-term policy. One questioner from the audience asked how Vietnam could be sure that the United States wouldn't turn its back on Hanoi if Washington's national security interests in the region were to change.
"We have never turned our backs on Asia," Gates replied. "We have long-term interests here."