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U.S. Defense chief meets with Chinese counterpart

American and Chinese defense chiefs met Monday in Hanoi, the first time in a year, as they sought to overcome a period of unusual strain between the two militaries.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates conferred privately with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie for half an hour on the eve of a regional defense conference in the Vietnamese capital.

Gates said afterward that he told Liang that “when there are disagreements, it’s all the more important to talk with each other, not less,” according to the Pentagon’s website.

Gates also said he had accepted a formal invitation from Liang to visit Beijing for more talks with senior Chinese military officials. The visit is expected early next year.

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The Chinese military broke off contacts in January after the Pentagon announced plans to sell more than $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade territory.

U.S. officials have long sought better ties with the Chinese military, hoping to improve their understanding of its leaders and their secretive plans for expansion. But the Chinese military appears suspicious of U.S. motives.

Even as he sought to improve those ties, Gates repeated the Obama administration’s contention that Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations should band together to negotiate with China to hash out their competing claims over the waters and small islands of the South China Sea.

That point of view is a source of irritation to China, which has been trying to assert its sovereignty in the oil-and-gas-rich region.

Gates said in a speech to military officers at Vietnam National University that important issues, including territorial disputes, are best solved through “strong multilateral cooperation.”

He also affirmed the U.S. military’s plan to remain in the Pacific. China has protested military exercises held by the United States and South Korea this year.

“The U.S. and Vietnam, as well as other nations in the region, also share a common interest in maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons,” Gates said.

In response to a question from a student, Gates said, “I think all Asia can be confident that the United States intends to remain engaged in Asia as we have been for so many scores of years before, and that we intend to be an active participant not only in economic and political matters, but also in defense and security matters.”

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Several countries in the region, including Vietnam and Malaysia, have been seeking stronger ties with the U.S. military at a time when China’s fast growth and assertiveness are worrying its smaller neighbors.

Chinese activity in the region is at the top of regional defense ministers’ concerns. But the subject is so sensitive that it is not part of the formal agenda for the conference, which is sponsored by the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations.

paul.richter@latimes.com


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