The US and China turned down the heat yesterday in a simmering dispute over Beijing's military build-up, with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressing optimism about future relations.
Gates called for a more detailed military dialogue with China to avoid future miscalculations, while a top Chinese general said Beijing was prepared to open a "hotline" with Washington.
The comments from the two officials, both of whom were attending an Asian security conference in Singapore, came in the wake of a Pentagon report that questioned the motivation behind Beijing's drive to modernize its military.
Gates downplayed past US rhetoric on China's military might, alluding only in passing to the Pentagon report by reiterating Washington's concerns over "the opaqueness of Beijing's military spending and modernization programs."
"But as General Pete Pace, our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out, there is some difference between `capacity' and `intent.' And I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the US-China relationship," gates said. "As we gain experience in dealing with each other, relationships can be forged that will build trust over time."
His mild tone contrasted with that taken by his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, who used the same forum two years ago to sharply question China's intentions in building up its military.
Later in a question-and-answer session, Gates said dialogue could be a useful tool in helping countries with differing ideologies to understand each other better, referring to Washington's Cold War-era negotiations with Moscow.
"While we have no conflict at this point, this kind of transparency, this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that prevents miscalculation, and helps each side understand where the other is headed and what its intentions are," Gates said.
For his part, Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng (章沁生), the Peoples Liberation Army's military intelligence chief, defended the buildup but said Beijing was "gradually making progress" in meeting US demands for greater openness.
He said China would finalize arrangements for a "hotline" with Washington in September when the two sides meet for annual defense talks, satisfying a long-standing US objective.
Zhang, the highest ranking Chinese military officer ever to attend the conference, also insisted that Beijing's strategic "intent" was purely defensive, saying: "China shall never fire the first shot."
But he denounced the Pentagon's recent report that detailed Beijing's drive to acquire warships, aircraft and missiles as a "product of the Cold War mindset" that sought to foster the view that China is a threat.
"This report is unreliable; it's not to be believed," Zhang said.
Zhang and Gates both spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an international conference on Asian security organized by London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank.
The general said China's declared US$45 billion defense budget was "true and authentic."
The Pentagon estimates China's military spending is really two or three times that much.
Responding to US charges that its projected military force goes beyond what it needs to defend itself, he said China needed a "proportionate military capability" for a country of its territorial size and population.
"China also has another problem, which is the Taiwan issue," he said through an interpreter. "Some people in Taiwan are still dreaming about secession. So China's military must be prepared to cope with this kind of threat."