Top News

U.S. looks to China for support on Afghanistan: Pentagon

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States is looking to stronger Chinese cooperation on Afghanistan, piracy, and other international troubles, a Pentagon official said on Saturday after talks that he said also addressed strains over Taiwan.

Protesters shout slogans in Kabul, February 28, 2009. Demonstrators called for investigation of the death of Haji Abdul Qadeer, the governor of Nangarhar, who was killed several years ago. REUTERS/Oleg Popov

The U.S. official, David Sedney, said China’s opposition to Washington’s arms sales to the disputed island of Taiwan came up in the two days of discussions in Beijing, but did not overwhelm an agenda that also covered Central Asia, China’s contribution to fighting piracy off the Somali coast, and nuclear weapons.

“The focus was not at all on obstacles. The focus was on how we can move forward,” Sedney, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told a news briefing after the talks.

“We both understand that it really is a new strategic environment that we’re in here, with China playing the role that it does,” he said.

The talks marked the first defense policy dialogue between the United States and China under the new Obama administration.

Sedney cast them as a promising start but avoided specifics.

Asked if the two sides discussed North Korea and its possible launch of a missile, he said that the two sides had talked about security in northeast Asia.

President Barack Obama has said he will increase forces in Afghanistan by 17,000 in a bid to quell worsening insurgent violence. Sedney said Washington would welcome Chinese help there and in neighboring Pakistan.

“This is an area where we’re looking to see more contributions from the international community -- and of course ... this means China -- to assist in the many, many needs that are in Afghanistan,” Sedney said.

He raised health, education and trade as examples of areas where China could help in Afghanistan, but did not specify security forces as among them. But he said Chinese military officials were interested in U.S. plans there.

“As they pointed out, Afghanistan and Pakistan are both neighbors of China,” Sedney said.

These latest U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks came after Beijing curtailed many bilateral military contacts in November to show its anger over the Bush administration’s decision to sell $6.5 billion of arms to Taiwan.

Beijing says Taiwan is an illegitimate breakaway province that must accept reunification, by force if necessary, and it has been angered by the military sales. Washington says the sales are justified by U.S. law as designed to help Taiwan defend itself.

Sedney said the two delegations’ discussion of Taiwan was frank but did not mark a shift in long-standing positions.

He praised China’s sending of warships to help NATO and other forces fight pirates who use Somalia as a base to menace the Gulf of Aden.

Since Obama entered the White House, both sides have been seeking to overcome friction and resume military contacts, which Sedney said had been restricted but never fully broken off.

China has not yet given its official account of the talks.

But at their start on Friday, Defense Ministry official Qian Lihua said “a lot of obstacles still existed ... relations between the two countries’ militaries were still in a difficult period,” the Liberation Army Daily said.

Washington has its own complaints about China’s military development. Pentagon officials have often said Beijing’s defense spending lacks transparency, fuelling disquiet in the region.

China’s defense budget for 2009 is likely to be announced at the annual session of the Communist Party-run parliament, which starts next week. In 2008, the government said it would spend 418 billion yuan ($61 billion) on defense, up 17.6 percent on 2007.

U.S. military spending accounts for about half the global total. Sedney said defense officials from the two sides will meet next week to work on dates for other military talks.

Additional reporting Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Paul Tait