U.S. defense chief to visit China in January

BEIJING, Dec. 27 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit China from Jan. 9 to 12 next year, the National Defense Ministry said in Beijing Monday.

"Gates will make the visit at the invitation of Chinese State Councilor and National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie," according to a statement from the Foreign Affairs Office of the ministry.

Although Gates' visit has long been under discussion, it is the first time that China has confirmed the date of his visit.

During his stay, Gates will meet with Chinese leaders, and thoroughly exchange views with his Chinese counterpart on the international and regional security situation, Sino-U.S. bilateral and military ties, and issues of common concern, the statement said.

China hopes the visit can help the two militaries improve understanding and trust, properly handle conflicts and divergence, expand common interests and cooperation, so as to push forward bilateral military ties in a healthy and sustainable way, according to the statement.

China has always attached importance to Sino-U.S. military ties, and views such ties as an important part of the bilateral relations, said the statement.

Gates' visit will be almost a year after China cut off some military exchanges with the United States in January, following the Pentagon's decision to sell a nearly 6.4-billion-U.S.-dollar arms package to Taiwan, an inalienable part of China.

Subsequently, none of the high-level military visits outlined in the China-U.S. communique signed in November last year when U.S. President Barack Obama visited China took place in the months from February to September.

Those planned visits included trips to Beijing by Gates and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. A visit to Washington by Chief of General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Chen Bingde was also suspended.

Chinese and U.S. senior military officials started to re-engage with each other in autumn.

In October, China's national defense chief Liang held talks with Gates in Hanoi, Vietnam, on the sidelines of the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus, during which Gates accepted Liang's invitation to visit China in early 2011.

China and the United States held the 11th defense consultation in Washington on Dec. 12. It was co-chaired by deputy chief of the General Staff of the PLA Ma Xiaotian and U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy.

"The meetings signalled that China and the United States would like to restore military exchanges and Gates' visit will warm up the military relations," said Zhu Feng, an international studies professor at Peking University.

"It is quite complicated as far as Gates' visit to China is concerned,"said Luo Yuan, a research fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science."but the decision on the schedule concerning Gates' visit to China has showed China is firm with its stand on issues of principle on one hand and also demonstrated its flexibility on the other."

"Dialogue is better than confrontation," Luo said, calling Gates' forthcoming visit to China "a rare opportunity to enhance communication between the militaries of the two countries."

China could take this opportunity to make clear its core interests and security concerns to the U.S. side," Luo said, adding that "the United States could learn about China's stance and defense policies more directly and deeply."

Luo hoped Gates' visit could bring Sino-U.S. military relations back to the track of normal and healthy development.

"Sino-U.S. relations are important and complicated," said Professor Zhu with the Peking University.

"The resumption of military contacts between China and the United States can not only promote exchanges in all forms and channels and strengthen mutual trust, but also help build the crisis management mechanism, which plays an irreplaceable role in maintaining regional peace and stability." said Zhu.

The main obstacles to the growth of Chinese and U.S. military ties, however, will not be removed by only one visit.

"Issues, such as the arms sales, frequent reconnaissance by the U.S. naval ships and aircraft in the waters and airspace of China's exclusive economic zones, to name just a few, have long remained as obstacles for the Chinese and U.S. armed forces to build mutual trust and develop cooperation," Yang Yi, an strategic expert at China's National Defense University, told Xinhua.

"Gates' China visit would create better atmosphere for the meetings of the Chinese and the U.S. heads of state and be helpful to promote the development of bilateral ties," Yang said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao will pay a state visit to the United States in January, 2011.


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