By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 1:21 AM
BEIJING -- The commander of China's nuclear rocket forces has accepted an invitation to visit the United States, in a small but significant breakthrough for U.S. efforts to improve military relations with China.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, commander of China's 2nd Artillery Corps, had accepted his invitation to visit the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska. Gates made the announcement on the last day of a three-day trip to China -- his first in three years.
U.S. officials have been inviting Jing and his predecessors for decades, but they have all declined. They have traveled abroad - to Sweden and Bulgaria, among other countries.
Jing's acceptance of the invitation was one of the bright spots on Gates's trip -- undertaken to restore high-level military talks with China.
During a visit to the Great Wall on Wednesday, Gates pronounced himself satisfied with his visit, calling it "very productive" and saying it "set the stage for taking the military-to-military relationship to a new level."
For Gates, that new level means establishing a robust and wide-ranging dialogue with China over the security situation in East Asia, China's intentions and its military modernization.
China's military, however, appears reluctant to embrace better ties with the Pentagon and at times during Gates's trip, senior Chinese officers appeared lukewarm in their support of a deeper relationship and a robust dialogue.
On Tuesday, the People's Liberation Army took the unprecedented step of testing a major new weapons system -- a flight test of a stealth fighter -- hours before Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. That test was seen as a statement by the PLA that it is not ready for a close relationship with the U.S. military. It was also viewed as a slap at Hu, who is believed to have forced the PLA to host Gates as part of the Chinese leader's desire to set a good foundation for his summit meeting next week with President Obama.
That impression was further bolstered by the sense that Hu was unaware of the test.
"The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test," Gates told reporters, adding that Hu "assured me it had nothing to do with [Gates's] visit."
The PLA suspended high-level ties with the United States last January after the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan.
At the time, the PLA said it would only restore ties if Washington, among other demands, stopped selling weapons to Taiwan -- which the United States has not said it would do.
Gates headed to Japan on Wednesday and later will travel to South Korea. On Tuesday, Gates announced that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles would be a "direct threat" to the interests of the United States.
Gates also laid out for the first time concrete suggestions for what the United States wanted North Korea to do to resume long-stalled talks on its denuclearization: announce a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing.