U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie listen to the United States national anthem during an honor cordon prior to talks at the Pentagon on May 7. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon hosted China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie on May 7 in a bid to boost military ties as the United States tried to contain the fallout from a diplomatic dispute over a top Chinese dissident.
Liang’s discussions with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, were expected to focus on the growing military rivalry between the two countries, while American officials planned to steer clear of the case of blind rights campaigner Chen Guangcheng.
“We’re not planning on raising it” during the first visit to Washington by a Chinese minister of defense in nine years, a senior defense official said.
Chen’s fate was a subject for U.S. diplomats at the State Department, not the Pentagon, the official added.
Chen dramatically escaped house arrest and took refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing on April 26, creating a dilemma for both governments just days before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
At the end of her visit, Clinton said she struck a deal that would allow Chen to go to the United States with his family to study. But China warned the United States to take measures to avoid a repeat of the Chen incident.
The Pentagon has long sought to forge a stronger security dialogue with China’s top brass but defense relations have remained an on-again-off-again affair, with Chen’s situation threatening to overshadow Liang’s visit.
Accompanied by a 24-member delegation including an array of senior officers, Liang was greeted with a U.S. honor guard standing at attention on the steps of the Pentagon, while a Marine Corps band clad in red and white played the national anthems of each country.
The talks were due to touch on North Korea’s nuclear program, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and U.S. concerns about cyber threats allegedly coming from China, the senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The cyber issue is an important area for dialogue and discussion with the Chinese government and the Chinese military in particular. We obviously have some concerns about some cyber behavior that appears to originate in China,” the official said.
Before his meeting with Liang, the U.S. defense secretary said in an interview over the weekend that his priority remained improving military-to-military relations. But he acknowledged that Chen’s case and human rights would be addressed by his colleagues at the State Department.
Speaking to Bloomberg Television, Panetta said that “the purpose of these discussions is to also indicate our concerns, and one of those concerns, obviously, relates to human rights and I suspect that the State Department is making very clear to the Chinese our concerns in that area.”
Apart from the turbulence surrounding the Chinese dissident, Liang’s visit comes at a delicate moment with Beijing irritated with Washington’s stance on the South China Sea and Taiwan.
Military contacts between China and the United States were broken off by Beijing in early 2010 when Washington unveiled a $6 billion arms contract with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.
Contacts were resumed at the end of the year shortly before then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing in January 2011.
But the White House, under pressure from some lawmakers, said recently it will give “serious consideration” to selling new U.S. fighter jets to Taiwan.
With China and the Philippines locked in a territorial dispute over the South China Sea, the United States also has plans to double military assistance to Manila, a move criticized by Beijing.
The United States, which is increasingly worried about Beijing’s mounting military strength, has sought to build up ties with the Chinese armed forces to avoid possible misunderstandings and defuse tensions.
Beijing, however, has rejected suggestions its military has adopted a more aggressive stance.
“China seeks no hegemony and its defense policy is defensive in nature.
Beijing does not deserve Washington’s ill-grounded suspicion over China’s peaceful development,” state-run Xinhua news agency wrote in a commentary.
For his a week-long visit, Liang arrived in San Francisco on May 4 and toured a U.S. naval station on May 5 in San Diego, where he got a first-hand look at an American destroyer.
Liang is scheduled to visit a U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, an Army base at Fort Benning in South Carolina and the West Point military academy in New York before departing May 10.