US military ties with China have been slow to recover from the forced landing of a US Navy spy plane on a Chinese island more than two years ago. But the prospect of closer military relations and Washington's push to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program are among the chief reasons for a trip to Asia by the top US general.
Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left Saturday for a tour that will take him to Japan, Mongolia, China and Australia.
Myers' predecessor, Army General John Shalikashvili, visited China in May 1997. No other Joint Chiefs chairman has gone to China since the early 1980s.
China is wary of US intentions in Asia and the Pacific, most notably regarding Taiwan.
"Myers' trip comes at a good time in US-China relations," but also at a time of substantial risk of a confrontation over Taiwan's ambitions for independence, said Ashton Carter, who was assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during former president Bill Clinton's administration.
Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has declared that an immediate security threat from China exists. He has announced that the island will hold a referendum on March 20 -- the day Chen seeks re-election -- on whether China should stop pointing hundreds of missiles at Taiwan.
For China, even referendums on mundane issues threaten to lead Taiwan to an independence vote, which Beijing has threatened to stop by force. To the chagrin of conservatives in Congress, the administration has criticized the referendum plans.
US President George W. Bush's Pentagon has been highly skeptical of the value of military cooperation with China.
Relations sank to new lows in April 2001, when Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei flew his jet too close to the US reconnaissance EP-3E that it had been shadowing over international waters off China's Hainan island.
The two planes collided. Wang's plunged into the South China Sea and he became a national hero. The Navy plane had to make an unauthorized emergency landing on Hainan. The Chinese military kept the 24-member crew in custody for 11 days.
At that point, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ended military contacts with China. Relations have improved only gradually since.
Unlike his two most immediate predecessors at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has not visited China. He did meet his counterpart, Geneal Cao Gangchuan, in Washington in October.
Before Myers, the highest-ranking US military officer to visit China under Bush has been Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of US Pacific Command. In a speech at Shanghai's Fudan University in December 2002, Fargo said it was important to promote "a genuine exchange of thought" and consistency in the relationship.
The state of US-China military relations has been anything but consistent in recent decades.
Ties were severed after China's army-led crackdown in 1989 on student protests at Tiananmen Square.
A 1994 visit to Beijing by then-defense secretary William Perry was meant to put relations back on track, but that effort was short-lived.
In 1996 China lobbed missiles near Taiwan during the island's first direct presidential election. In response, Clinton sent two aircraft carrier groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait. It was the largest US naval movement in the Asia-Pacific region since the Vietnam War.