In unusual praise for China, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that Beijing deserved credit for its relatively mild response to Washington's announcement last month of a $5.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
He suggested it could create new momentum toward improved U.S.-China ties.
China has reacted to past American arms sales to Taiwan by reducing or freezing contacts with the Pentagon. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and sees U.S. arms sales as undermining its efforts to reunite Taiwan with mainland China. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949.
Beijing temporarily suspended military exchanges with the U.S. last year after the Obama administration notified Congress it was making $6.4 billion in weapons available to Taiwan. That included missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, information distribution systems and two mine hunting ships.
But this time the response was milder when the U.S. announced in September an arms deal that will upgrade Taiwan's existing F-16 fighter jets. A decision to sell the island a new version of the F-16, as some in Congress asserted was crucial to Taiwan's defense, probably would have stirred a more vociferous response.
The U.S. is bound by law to provide for Taiwan's defense, but it does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.
At a news conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Panetta said he appreciated what he characterized as a mild Chinese response to the latest arms deal. He said he is aware of no steps China is taking to limit military-to-military activities or contacts with the U.S. in reaction to the latest sale.
"I guess I would commend them for the way that they've handled the news of that sale to Taiwan," he said. "I think we'd given the Chinese a heads up as to what was going to take place, and in the end I think they handled it in a professional and diplomatic way and we appreciate that."
Panetta is in Indonesia for talks with Southeast Asian leaders. On Monday he plans to travel to Japan and later in the week will hold security talks in South Korea.
Panetta attended a meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the invitation of the host member, Indonesia. Afterward he told reporters that the officials had a productive discussion about improving regional maritime security, working together on humanitarian relief efforts, and cooperating on means of preventing Southeast Asia from being a route for the movement of dangerous weapons.
China's military buildup and its claims to certain territories and waters in the South China Sea are a concern to many countries in the region, and to Washington. But a senior U.S. defense official said after Panetta's meeting that none mentioned China explicitly. The official, who attended the talks, spoke on condition of anonymity under terms set by Panetta aides.
At his news conference, Panetta indicated that improving U.S. relations with China will be a priority for him as defense secretary and that he hoped to build on progress achieved by his predecessor, Robert Gates. Panetta said he hopes to travel to China "as soon as I can," but offered no timetable.
"I feel pretty confident," he added, that Washington and Beijing are in position to build a relationship that improves communication and strengthens security.
He also said that a central message of his current visit _ his first to Asia since becoming Pentagon chief in July _ is that the U.S. intends to remain a Pacific power and that coming reductions in U.S. defense budgets will not lead to a smaller U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP