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China, U.S. to resume high-level military ties

BEIJING -- China and the United States agreed to resume high-level military exchanges during talks here that a senior U.S. defense official described Saturday as his best ever.

The two-day defense contacts that ended Saturday were the first between the world powers in five months after China suspended military exchanges over a proposed U.S. arms package to Taiwan — a sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations.

“We agreed we are going to be having high-level exchanges very soon,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney told reporters.

Sedney, who has been involved in such dialogue for 18 years, hailed the talks as extremely positive.

“These were the best set of talks that I have ever been a part of... between the U.S. and Chinese defense establishments,” he said.

The head of China's delegation, Qian Lihua, had warned on Friday that the resumption of talks was no guarantee that broader military exchanges would go ahead.

Qian said the onus was on the United States to ease tensions between the two sides, and specified the planned 6.5-billion-dollar U.S. arms sale to Taiwan as an obstacle.

“China-U.S. military relations remain in a difficult period. We expect the U.S. side to take concrete measures for the resumption and development of our military ties,” Qian said, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

But Sedney said that during the talks, both sides had agreed to the need for regular exchanges.

“A very important part of it was that as we've had... I'll call it a pause in some of the talks we've had, that's helped bring home to both of us how important it is to have continuous, regular dialogue,” he said.

The official indicated talks on maritime issues was one area for future top-level exchanges, but gave few other details.

Sedney also suggested the planned U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which includes advanced weaponry such as 30 Apache attack helicopters and 330 Patriot missiles, could still go ahead.

“I don't think there has been any change in that,” he said in response to a question on whether the United States would pursue with the deal.

Taiwan and mainland China have been governed separately since they split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Both sides have stationed vast weaponry on either shore of the Taiwan Strait.

The United States has regularly sold arms to Taiwan in the past in what it says is a bid to preserve stability across the strait, but the moves have always angered China.

Sedney said he had discussed the issue with Chinese officials, who had emphasized its importance.

The talks also touched on the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan — both neighbors of China — as well as security in Northeast Asia, which includes North Korea.

But Sedney would not be drawn on whether they had discussed Pyongyang's intention to launch a satellite — a move the United States believes could be a long-range missile test for a weapon with the potential to hit Alaska.

China, one of North Korea's closest allies, has made little comment on the subject, which has dominated regional security concerns in recent weeks.

Sino-U.S. military relations remain marked by deep tensions over other issues aside from Taiwan.

Mistrust has grown as China has poured money into modernizing its armed forces in recent years, fueling U.S. concerns that it plans to project its power more boldly in the region.

The talks are taking place just days before China unveils its military budget for 2009, likely announcing yet another large increase in defense spending.

The United States and its allies have repeatedly accused China of not being transparent with its military spending — an issue that Sedney said had also been broached during the talks.

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