BEIJING Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart said on Monday stronger military ties were needed to avoid missteps between the two global giants, whose forces have pushed up against each other in Asia.
Gates is in China on a bridge-building trip a week ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States for a January 19 summit with President Barack Obama.
U.S. and Chinese military ties were curtailed for much of last year after Beijing protested against Obama's proposed sale of $6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan, the self-ruled island China deems an illegitimate breakaway.
Gates said a lack of ties between the two militaries could magnify risks. U.S. and Chinese defense-related ships have jostled in seas near China in past years, and in 2001 a mid-air collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese air force fighter erupted into a diplomatic standoff.
"We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds," Gates told reporters after talks with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie.
Liang said they had "agreed that sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts will help reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation."
In meetings throughout the day, both sides appeared eager to show military relations were finally back on track, a key objective ahead of Hu's visit to Washington.
But, in a sign the thaw may not last, Liang warned Washington against arming Taiwan in future, saying U.S. sales "seriously damaged China's core interests."
Military ties are among the most brittle links between the United States and China, grappling with trade and currency strains and human rights disputes that have unsettled relations between the world's biggest economy and the emerging number two.
Senior Obama administration officials, including Gates, have also urged Beijing to do more to rein in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran and to become more candid about the modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
China lifted its official defense budget by 7.5 percent in 2010, compared with the previous year, bringing annual spending to 532.1 billion yuan ($80.27 billion). Many analysts believe real military spending is much higher, however.
Its military modernization programme, which has alarmed other countries in the region and Washington, will likely see China build aircraft carriers, stealth jet fighters and anti-ship ballistic missiles.
Gates said on Saturday he was concerned that some Chinese advances risked challenging U.S. military capabilities.
But Liang said China's military technology was decades behind the world's most advanced armed forces, and that its weaponry was not being crafted to counter any one nation.
"The efforts that we placed on the research and development of weapons systems is by no means targeted at any third country and it will by no means threaten any other countries in the world," he told reporters.
While military links do not feature in day-to-day dealings between Beijing and Washington, officials fear China's growing strength raises the risk of military mishaps flaring into volatile disputes.
"In the ups and downs in Chinese-U.S. relations, military ties are always the first to suffer casualties," said Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia who specializes in Chinese security policy.
Gates's trip is the most visible demonstration that relations have improved. The two defense chiefs agreed to move ahead with a programme of military visits that was agreed in 2009 but curtailed by China over the weapons sales to Taiwan.
But distrust remains deep.
In 2010, China bristled at U.S. joint exercises with South Korea in seas near China, and denounced U.S. pressure to solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China does not appear convinced that it needs to permanently upgrade military dialogue with the United States, said Rory Medcalf, a security analyst at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
"One of the challenges for Gates and Obama is to persuade the Chinese that it is in their interests too that China doesn't keep breaking off (military) dialogue, as it does every time there is a political disagreement of Taiwan or Tibet, or something else," said Medcalf.
"There is a need for a regime of restraint, and communication at sea between the U.S. and China should be very high on the priorities list."
In 2007, China and the United States agreed to open a hotline to allow quick communication between their military forces in emergencies. But the hotline has been rarely, if ever, used, and the Chinese government has sometimes been slow in responding to foreign leaders' calls during disputes.
(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in SYDNEY; Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)