By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and China both have advanced cyber warfare capabilities and must work to avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday as he hosted the first visit by a Chinese defense minister in nine years.
Panetta, standing alongside Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, defended the U.S. military's shift in strategic focus to Asia, saying the aim was to help friends develop the ability to confront the mutual challenges they face, and Washington wanted the same kind of ties with Beijing.
"The United States and China are powers in the Pacific and our goal is to establish a constructive relationship for the future," Panetta said. "It is essential for our two nations to communicate effectively on a range of very challenging issues."
Panetta and Liang, who led a 24-member delegation of top Chinese military officials, discussed cyberspace, nuclear arms, North Korea and other issues of mutual concern during talks at the Pentagon aimed at putting their often rocky military-to-military ties on a more stable footing.
Liang invited Panetta to visit China in the second half of the year, and the U.S. defense secretary accepted. The two sides also agreed to hold a combined counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden later this year.
At the news conference, Liang rejected suggestions that cyber attacks aimed at the United States were coming directly from China. He said Panetta agreed not all cyber attacks on the United States could be attributed to China and that the two sides discussed ways to cooperate on cyber security.
Panetta said it was true that other countries and hackers were involved in cyber attacks on the United States and China.
"But because the United States and China have developed technological capabilities in this arena it's extremely important that we work together to develop ways to avoid any miscalculation or misperception that could lead to crisis," he said.
TENSIONS BETWEEN NATIONS
The Chinese visit comes amid heightened tensions between the two countries after activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy, where he remained for six days while negotiating terms of his departure. China accused U.S. diplomats of meddling and demanded an apology.
The talks at the Pentagon dealt with thorny issues like North Korea's nuclear programs, U.S. missile defense efforts, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China's standoff with the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea and China's military modernization programs.
"These are all important issues to talk about in the military-to-military relationship," a senior U.S. defense official said ahead of the meeting. "They are critical because they can help to reduce the chances for miscalculation or misperceptions."
But officials also worked on ways for the two militaries to cooperate on things like disaster response, humanitarian assistance and counter-piracy efforts.
The Chinese delegation already has visited the U.S. Navy base in San Diego, where they discussed counter-piracy operations with a commander who recently returned from counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
They also are scheduled to visit U.S. Southern Command in Florida, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
China and the United States have become increasingly wary of each other's strategic intent in recent years. Washington is concerned about a rapid military buildup by Beijing, even though it still spends about six times as much on defense as China.
The Pentagon is particularly concerned about Chinese development of weapons that seem to be aimed at depriving the United States of its strategic advantages, such as anti-satellite arms, or missiles that could deny the U.S. Navy freedom of movement in the ocean near China.
"We'd like to be able to understand a little bit more about why the Chinese are investing in this very robust and rapid military modernization program given the security environment that we see in the Asia-Pacific today, which is a region that's at peace," the senior U.S. defense official said.
Beijing is concerned about President Barack Obama's strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, including Panetta's announcement in January of a new military strategy that would put greater focus on the region.
Washington followed that announcement with an agreement to base a contingent of Marines in Australia, a deal to restructure its basing in Japan and talks with the Philippines on deepening security cooperation.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Philip Barbara)