BEIJING China and the United States next week hold their first top level military-to-military talks since 2009 to try to bring more trust to a relationship overshadowed by weapons sales to Taiwan and unease over the growing reach of Beijing's armed forces.
The week-long visit by People's Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde follows this week's talks of top government officials seen as making some ground in easing tensions between the world's two biggest economies.
"The lack of high-level and sustained military-to-military engagement means that the whole of the U.S.-China relationship remains unbalanced," said Cheung Tai Ming, a senior fellow at the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
China sharply cut back military contacts after the Obama administration announced in early 2010 major weapons sales to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Chen told a visiting U.S. delegation last month that those arms sales were still the biggest obstacle facing military relations.
His talks with Obama administration officials and military commanders are unlikely to yield breakthroughs but could help warm relations.
"The U.S. has a whole range of proposals on information and operational exchanges on the table, and none of that can take place until the upper echelons within the military, as well as the civilian apparatus, agree on this," Cheung said.
But military strains could still flare, especially with a U.S. presidential race and leadership transition in China in 2012 that could distract decision-makers and make them less willing to compromise on disputes.
"Pretending that tensions between our two militaries can be placed in an isolation ward and not affect the views of the top leadership in each country is wishful thinking," said David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at CNA, which advises Washington policy-makers on security issues.
"I am confident that officials on both sides understand that the military dimensions of U.S.-China relations are too important to be held hostage to polls, bloggers, and Op-Eds," he said.
The United States, and others in the region, have watched with concern as China's military has extended its reach in Asia and built up its military prowess.
In one display of military muscle, China confirmed it had held its first test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet during a January visit to Beijing by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
It is also possible China will launch its first aircraft carrier later this year.
RISK OF DANGEROUS MISSTEPS
Chinese ships shadowing U.S. vessels in the South China Sea and Beijing's surprise launch of a missile that destroyed an inactive Chinese satellite in 2007 have raised worries about the risk of dangerous missteps, especially as China's expanding military capabilities rub up against U.S. forces in Asia.
For its part, China sees the heavy U.S. military presence in Asia, especially bases in South Korea and Japan, as threats to its influence and interests.
However, both also see the need to communicate better.
"This military relationship is taking on more importance, not only because as China's military develops so do the chances of mistrust, but also because cooperation in problem spots like Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot develop without it," said Peking University professor Zhu Feng.
Apart from meeting top U.S. civilian and military leaders, including Defense Secretary Gates, Chen will visit key military sites, something a Chinese official praised ahead of the visit.
"The U.S. side has made considerate arrangements. Some sites have not accepted visiting military leaders for years," the state-run China Daily quoted Defense Ministry official Huang Xueping as saying.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee and Jonathan Thatcher)