The defense chiefs of the United States and China have held talks for the first time in almost a year but prickly issues such as Taiwan and territorial claims in Southeast Asia remain a thorn to relations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met his Chinese counterpart Gen. Liang Guanglie on the sidelines of an Asian security forum in Hanoi on Oct. 11 after a 10-month suspension in military ties over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
"The biggest obstacle in defense relations between the U.S. and China is U.S. arms sales to Taiwan," Guan You Fei, deputy head of external relations with China's defense ministry, told a news conference after the meeting.
China broke off defense ties with the United States in January over American plans to sell Taiwan more than U.S. $6 billion worth of arms, including Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles and mine sweepers.
China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the island has governed itself since 1949 at the end of a civil war.
After the 30-minute meeting with Liang, Gates said there was no reason for the Taiwan arms sales to derail a much-needed security dialogue between the two nations, as the U.S. military had little to do with the policy.
He said "the reality is the secretary of defense does not make decisions with respect to Taiwan arms sales. It is fundamentally a political decision," by Congress and political leaders, he said.
"And why the military relationship should be held hostage to what is essentially a political decision, seems to me curious. And I believe it should not be."
"If there is a discussion to be had, it is at the political level," he said.
Aside from arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China ties have been tested so far this year by issues such as Internet policy, Tibet, China's undervalued currency and territorial claims.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is planning to visit the United States next year and Guan said the trip would become "the top priority of bilateral relations in the near future."
Gates and Liang did not discuss the issue of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but the U.S. defense secretary, in a speech earlier in Hanoi, indirectly challenged China's insistence on a bilateral approach to territorial disputes.
Key issues in Asia, including "territorial disputes," could best be solved through "strong multilateral cooperation," he said in a speech to military officers at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.
Odds with ASEAN
Beijing's claims to potentially resource-rich archipelagos in the South China Sea have put it at odds with Vietnam and some members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China favors handling the South China Sea issue separately with individual claimants, while ASEAN members have called for negotiating a "code of conduct" for all nations.
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.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh confirmed on the meeting's sidelines that China had ended another maritime incident by releasing nine Vietnamese fishermen 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.
Reported by news agencies.