By David Alexander
SINGAPORE, Jun (Reuters) - The defense ministers of the United States and China held talks in Singapore on Friday which aides described as cordial, as Malaysia's prime minister called for the region to avoid taking sides and slipping into another version of the Cold War.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it was "critically important" for the U.S. and Chinese militaries to maintain a dialogue about issues of disagreement as they work to develop military ties that both sides agree have improved this year.
Gates' remarks came at the outset of a nearly hour-long meeting with Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie at the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue, a session aides said later was both "productive" and "very cordial." "Overall the meeting focused far more on areas of agreement than disagreement," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.
"Of course there were areas of disagreement raised, but they were really acknowledged and sort of moved on from. And far more time was spent on things we collectively believe need to be done moving forward and focusing on them." Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak later inaugurated the meeting, calling for a new look at global strategic relationships.
"Today, China is our partner. The US is also our partner," he said. "It is not about taking sides. We must replace the old bilateralism of the Cold War not with a new bilateralism but with a multilateralism that can rise to the task ahead."
U.S.-China military ties have been gradually warming this year but are still fragile after nearly a year's break over a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan. U.S. military leaders are concerned about China's growing military capabilities, some of which they feel are directed at countering the United States' strengths in the region. China tested a radar-evading jet fighter during Gates' visit to Beijing in January. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, to be united eventually with the mainland, by force if necessary. The United States recognizes Beijing's "one China" policy, but is obliged under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.
AREAS OF CONCERN The Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La dialogue raised issues that have been traditional areas of concern for them, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, provisions of the defense policy bills in the U.S. Congress and U.S. reconnaissance off China's coast, senior U.S. defense officials said on condition of anonymity. "All the issues that you would anticipate that they would raise, areas of concern for them, they raised again as they usually do," one official said. The two sides did not specifically discuss the recent cyber attacks in the United States against the top U.S. defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, and the personal Google e-mail accounts of some government officials But Liang did mention the importance of the strategic security dialogue inaugurated in May between the two sides, which aims to deal with cyberspace and maritime issues and ultimately may be the forum for other sensitive topics like nuclear missile defense and space, U.S. officials said. Liang said in his opening statement that military-to-military relations with the United States have made "some positive progress" since the beginning of the year." "How to make mil-to-mil relations comparable to our bilateral relations is an important subject for senior leaders to truly consider," he added. Gates, who was making his final appearance at the dialogue before stepping down at the end of June, said he would leave office "believing that our military relationships are on a more positive trajectory." "Going forward, the U.S. and China need to do more work together on issues where we have a common interest -- piracy and disaster relief and North Korea," he said in his opening statement. "I also believe it is critically important to maintain a dialogue in areas where we disagree so we can have greater clarity about each other's interests," Gates added.
"Together we can show the world the benefits that arise when great nations collaborate on matters of shared interest."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Sanjeev Miglani)