WASHINGTON If their bands can make music together, can the U.S. and Chinese militaries strike a better note as well?
That was at least the hope as the premier military bands from China and the United States performed together in Washington on Monday, kicking off a visit by top brass from the People's Liberation Army meant to improve often icy relations.
General Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the PLA, and seven other generals are leading the PLA's first trip to the United States since Beijing severed military ties in 2010 in protest over a $6.3 billion U.S. arms deal with Taiwan.
The concert, in which both bands played together after solo performances, was the first public event during the weeklong trip in which Chen will meet top officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House.
All are hoping to build on momentum improving Sino-U.S. ties following President Hu Jintao's first state visit to the United States in January.
"We think this is a great opportunity for the two militaries' armies, in particular in this case, to come together and to begin to get to know each other," said U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, speaking to reporters before the concert.
"We hope it's the start of other kinds of engagements in the future," said Dempsey,, who added it was the first time the PLA band had played in public on U.S. soil.
China's rapid military buildup has raised eyebrows in Washington, including its test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter during a January visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It also is possible China will launch its first aircraft carrier later this year.
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 military increasingly rubs up against U.S. forces in Asia.
Chen, in a sign of Chinese willingness to engage, is expected to take questions from U.S. military officers on Wednesday after a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. He may also speak with Pentagon reporters on Tuesday, officials say.
While those events will likely focus on areas of friction, including China's military buildup and U.S. arms sales, a U.S. official said the agenda was not designed to focus on those issues.
"We don't expect this to be a contentious meeting and certainly the agenda is not designed to focus on areas of outstanding disagreement," the official said.
"We expect this to be along the trend of a warming in relations, really with the momentum carried on by the President Hu visit."
In another sign of the recent thaw, the USS Hampton, a California-based nuclear submarine, arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday and was at anchor in Hong Kong harbor, a Navy spokesman said. China had canceled port visits in the past.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander in Washington, Gary Ling in Hong Kong; Editing by Peter Cooney)