Chinese and U.S. defense officials met in Beijing on Wednesday to talk about reducing the risk of confrontation after recent friction over arms sales to Taiwan and a stepped-up American military presence on China's edges.
The 12th round of U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks are a barometer of relations between China's 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army and a U.S. military that is repositioning itself in the Pacific following the winding down of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the Chinese military has lashed out at the recent U.S. moves, Beijing's decision to proceed with the talks appears to show it is placing a new importance on regular talks between the sides, even as their rivalry sharpens.
Lead Chinese delegate Gen. Ma Xiaotian said going ahead with the meeting shows both sides are committed to improving relations.
"We attach great value to this platform to enhance communication, to expand common ground, to promote mutual understanding, to manage and control risks and to avoid miscalculation, this maintaining the stability of our military-to-military relationship," Ma, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of staff, said in opening remarks at the hulking Defense Ministry in downtown Beijing.
Representing the U.S., Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy said next year would be a "very significant" year for relations and "it's very important to cooperate on a number of issues that impact both of our countries," apparently referring to a looming political leadership transition in China and the U.S. presidential election.
Neither official referred to the Taiwan arms sale. Beijing says the self-ruled island is Chinese territory to be recovered by military force if necessary.
China summoned the U.S. ambassador and warned of damage to relations following an announcement in September of a decision to offer Taiwan the $5.85 billion package to upgrade the island's F-16 fleet.
In the weeks that followed, it postponed a visit by the U.S. Army Band and Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, along with joint anti-piracy exercises and a military medical exchange, scholars Bonnie Glaser and Brittany Billingsley said in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China's decision to proceed with the talks, however, appears to show that Beijing has "accepted that suspending overall bilateral military ties does not serve U.S. and Chinese interests," Glaser and Billingsley said, warning also that it wasn't clear yet whether the Chinese side is willing to restore the full range of military-to-military contacts.
Besides the U.S. military sales to Taiwan, China is also expected to complain about U.S. military surveillance missions within China's Exclusive Economic Zone.
Ma is likely to raise U.S. plans announced in late November to rotate Marines to Australia for training with Australian forces from an Australian army base in Darwin, beginning in 2012, Chinese officers quoted in state media said.
Up to 2,500 Marines, infantry units as well as aviation squadrons and combat logistic battalions, will go there from Okinawa or other Marine stations in Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific for a few months at a time.
Chinese hard-liners have called the move, along with strengthened military ties with allies Japan and the Philippines as well as former enemy Vietnam, a new U.S. containment policy that must be resisted through more active diplomacy.
"The U.S. has always asked China to be transparent about its strategy. It is the U.S. who should make its intentions clear," Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, of the PLA's Academy of Military Sciences, was quoted as saying in the China Daily newspaper.
Flournoy is expected to raise U.S. concerns about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, North Korea, Iran, maritime security, cyber security, nuclear weapons policy, and outer space, Glaser and Billingsley said. She will also seek to reschedule postponed exchanges.
China's recent start of sea trials on its first aircraft carrier have emphasized its growing capabilities, particularly in the naval field, raising concerns it apply those to make good on its claim to the South China Sea and its island groups.
President Hu Jintao told navy officers Tuesday to extend the modernization of the force and "expand the deepening of preparations for military struggle."
Results of Wednesday's discussions will provide an indication of the overall health of military-to-military ties, including whether or not they set an agenda for exchanges next year and how extensive the list is, Glaser and Billingsley said.