The Pentagon is quietly set to resume formal defense talks with the Chinese military that were cut off in October over Beijing’s anger at U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
However, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has told China he won’t go to Beijing until a senior Chinese defense official first visits Washington. Mr. Gates told Chinese Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian in Singapore earlier this month, when an agreement was reached on holding the next round of Defense Consultative Talks, that he would not accept the invitation to visit Beijing until after China sends its defense minister or an equivalent official to Washington.
“The secretary said he would be glad to return to Beijing once his counterpart or equivalent there were to make a trip to Washington, where there is a standing invitation for him to come,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
It is one of the few times that the Pentagon has imposed conditions for a U.S. military exchange with China. In most cases, China’s military makes demands for visits.
Mr. Morrell said the issue for the secretary is reciprocity.
Mr. Gates last visited China in 2007 and met with Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, who has not visited the United States since 2003.
The Defense Consultative Talks, which began in 1997, will be held in Beijing from June 23 to 24 and led by Michele A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy. Also expected to be part of the delegation is the Obama administration’s new deputy assistant defense secretary in charge of China policy, Michael Schiffer, a program officer at the nonprofit Stanley Foundation.
Mr. Morrell said the next round of talks will seek to “re-engage” on a range of topics after the hiatus. He did not specify what was on the agenda.
The last talks took place in December 2007 in Beijing.
The defense talks come amid heightened tensions over Chinese naval harassment of U.S. ocean surveillance ships in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea.
The most serious incident involved several Chinese vessels sailing dangerously close to the USNS Impeccable in March near Hainan island.
China, for its part, cut off all defense talks after the Pentagon announced it planned to sell $6.5 billion in weapons to Taiwan under long-standing U.S. policy to provide for Taiwan’s defense needs. China regards the island as a breakaway province and opposes the arms sales.
Mr. Morrell said China appears to have backed off the naval harassment, which China claimed was defensive in nature. “We’ve seen an improvement in the behavior of Chinese ships in terms of their interaction with us in those waters,” he said, noting that the issue was not raised by Mr. Gates in his discussion with Gen. Ma in Singapore.
The U.S. goal in military ex- changes with China has been to develop better relations with the communist-ruled military. However, defense officials involved in the talks say for the most part, the Chinese repeat prepared talking points and do not engage in a dialogue.
Several high-ranking U.S. military visitors recently traveled to China, including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. But few senior Chinese military leaders have come to the United States in recent months.
In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao told President George W. Bush that the commander of China’s nuclear forces would visit the U.S. Strategic Command. However, the commander, Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, has never visited the U.S.
Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates is encouraged by lower-level talks on U.S.-China strategic issues.
However, for the past 10 years, U.S. military requests to visit the underground Chinese military command center at Western Hills in Beijing have been turned down. The facility is believed to house 250 to as many as 1,000 military personnel and is considered China’s Pentagon.
Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates will travel to Asia later this year and could visit China if a Chinese military leader first comes to Washington.
Mr. Gates favors exchanges and talks as a way of promoting military dialogue and transparency, he said.