WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for lasting dialogue with China's military after years of "on-again, off-again" talks as he welcomed a top Chinese general to the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The 75-minute meeting between Gates and Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the People's Liberation Army Central Military Commission, represented the highest-level visit by a Chinese military official since 2006.
It was also a concrete sign of improving relations with China's armed forces after Beijing halted military-to-military dialogue with Washington last year to protest against a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
"We need to break the on-again, off-again cycle of our military-to-military relationship," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, summarizing Gates' comments to Xu.
In the past there were cases "where we make strides, we have a good visit, we agree to cooperate on certain things and then there will be a hiccup that will cause there to be a suspension" in military-to-military relations, Morrell said.
U.S. officials are eager to boost communication with China, particularly given a rapid expansion of its armed forces, which Xu assured Gates was geared toward self-defense only, a U.S. defense official told reporters after the talks.
Morrell described the meeting as positive and issued a statement detailing ways in which the two countries' militaries would deepen cooperation. He announced that Gates also accepted Xu's invitation to visit China.
Chinese vessels have confronted U.S. surveillance ships in Asian waters repeatedly this year and Beijing has called on the United States to reduce and eventually halt air and sea military surveillance close to its shores.
But Xu said in Washington on Monday that U.S.-Chinese military relations have improved since January's inauguration of President Barack Obama, who will visit China next month.
At Tuesday's meeting, Xu reiterated long-standing "obstacles" to deepening ties with the U.S. military, a U.S. official said. These included tensions over Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a renegade province, as well as U.S. surveillance of waters off China.
But the U.S. defense official, speaking about the talks on the condition he not be named, said the broader U.S. message was that dialogue with China was essential.
"We ought to be able to talk about those policy disagreements in an appropriate setting," he said.
"But the important thing is that we shouldn't let those policy disagreements lead us to take actions that might precipitate a crisis or undermine the entire bilateral relationship."
The new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, said last week that China's military growth had exceeded the expectations of most U.S. intelligence estimates over the past decade.
U.S. intelligence agencies last month singled out China as a challenge to the United States because of its "increasing natural resource-focused diplomacy and military modernization."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)