U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to patch up damaged military ties with China on Monday, accepting an invitation to visit Beijing next year and arguing that the two militaries should not be hostage to the long-standing U.S. political relationship with Taiwan.
Gates avoided a direct confrontation with China over Asian sea disputes that have smaller Southeast Asian nations feeling pushed around. The United States is worried that China's increasingly aggressive claims to disputed island chains could disrupt shipping, or even ignite a shooting war.
Gates said those disputes, which are the backdrop to an Asian security meeting here, should be resolved peacefully through negotiations.
"We don't take sides in this," Gates told reporters in Hanoi. "We don't have any territorial claims of our own."
The comments come as defense ministers from Southeast Asia meet in Vietnam with their counterparts from eight other countries.
The U.S. defense chief met with a top Chinese general for the first such high-level contact in months. Gates told reporters afterward he had accepted a formal invitation to visit Beijing. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the visit would probably come early in 2011.
China had yanked an earlier invitation to Gates and suspended military contact with the United States in January. The moves were meant to protest a $6.4 billion U.S. arms package for Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory.
The United States once recognized the nationalist Chinese government in exile in Taiwan as China's legitimate leaders, but withdrew that formal support in 1978 when it recognized Beijing's Communist government. The U.S. still sells weapons to Taiwan, however, largely because of political support for Taiwan in Congress.
Taiwan is a political matter that should not trump the practical reasons for military officials in both nations to stay in close contact, Gates said he told Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie.
"The dialogue between the two militaries ought to be sustainable regardless of the ups and downs in the relationship," Gates told reporters traveling with him. "Having greater clarity and understanding of each other is essential to preventing mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes."
Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations are looking for U.S. backing as China asserts claims to islands in the South China Sea and muscles its smaller neighbors in other ways. The United States has said it will not back off the principle that such disputes be resolved by group discussion and without violence.
The heating of territorial disputes in Asian waters follows a series of aggressive moves by China on the high seas. The latest spat erupted last month with Japan over a collision between a Chinese trawler and two Japanese patrol boats off disputed islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
Japan detained the Chinese boat captain, enraging Beijing. He was eventually released, and last week the two countries agreed to resume high-level talks, but each continues to claim the territory.
Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa met with his Chinese counterpart in Hanoi on Monday and asked for cooperation on the creation of a communication system that could be used following maritime accidents, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.
Separately, China would not confirm that a port call by a Japanese naval training ship scheduled for later this month would take place.
The Chinese minister only responded by saying "I've heard about that," neither affirming nor rejecting the request, a Japanese ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of department rules.
"Even though we were not fully prepared for talks, the fact that the defense ministers from the two countries could hold talks was a step forward," Kitazawa told reporters.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh confirmed on the meeting's sidelines that China had ended another maritime incident on Sunday by releasing nine Vietnamese fishermen who were detained last month while operating in waters near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
Last week, Vietnam demanded that the fishermen be released immediately without conditions. China had refused to send the sailors home until the captain paid a fine for having explosives aboard the boat. Vietnam denied the allegation, saying the boat was only carrying fishing equipment. Both countries, along with Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, claim sovereignty over all or part of the islands.
Associated Press writers Tran Van Minh in Hanoi and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.