Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacting to a story in an english language paper in China. (Photo: Reuters)
Beijing - China and the Obama administration concluded their first military consultations Saturday without setting a timetable for high-level exchanges while agreeing to begin working-level talks Monday.
The discussions reflected the Chinese military's greater international role and followed Beijing's suspension of most military contacts in October after the United States announced a $6.5 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a wayward province.
Factors including the new U.S. administration, the depth of the American financial crisis, China's increased confidence, and growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan have combined to produce the most frank and open talks in years, experts and participants said.
"These were the best set of talks that I have ever been part of," said David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, who co-chaired the annual Defense Policy Coordination Talks. "Not because we pretended that everything was fine and everything was resolved, but because we worked very seriously to address the obstacles while at the same time engaging in some discussions in some of the new areas like counterpiracy."
China's Defense Ministry declined repeated requests for comment. "China-U.S. military relations remain difficult," Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the ministry's Foreign Affairs Office, told state-run media as the talks began Friday. "We expect the United States to take concrete measures for the resumption and development of our military ties."
But by Saturday, both sides had agreed to continue the exchange.
Sedney's entourage included representatives from the U.S. Pacific Command, the Joint Staff, the State Department and the U.S. Central Command, which briefed the Chinese on President Obama's recent decision to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
"The kinds of discussions we had about Pakistan and Afghanistan, that was an area where we had a new level of dialogue that we hadn't had before," Sedney said.
China has been holding military exercises with other countries and trying to see whether it has the leverage to push the United States to make concessions on Taiwan, analysts say. Since 1990, the People's Liberation Army has also sent 11,063 military personnel to participate in 18 peacekeeping operations, according to a recent government white paper on the military.
"They're able to communicate with other navies out there. They're participating in the contact group on piracy and being a little more cooperative with other naval forces than I had expected," said Phillip Saunders, a senior research fellow at National Defense University. "They're trying to be seen as making a broader contribution. They don't want to be seen as only protecting their own interests."
But the PLA's main goal remains defending the position and interests of the Communist Party leadership, a purpose unaltered by the military's active new diplomacy and recent improvements in China's relationship with Taiwan.
"Washington wants transparency and confidence-building, which are threatening from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party, so Beijing engages in military-to-military dialogues for appearance' sake but uses them as a battle ground to wrest political concessions from Washington," said Rick Fisher, senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Others say the resumption of military talks less than two months after President Bush left office demonstrates China's hopes for a fresh start.
"Because of self-confidence, because of the bad U.S. economy, because of domestic unrest, China has become harder to almost everyone who makes trouble: to France, to the Russians, to the E.U.," said Shi Yinhong, who runs the Center for American Studies at People's University in Beijing. "In this context, with the cooperation of [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, who had an almost perfect visit, China is saying it desires a good beginning with the Obama administration."
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.