Senior U.S. and Chinese defense officials opened two days of security talks here Monday amid strained relations over Beijing's denial of US naval visits to Hong Kong.
The Chinese government late last week formally notified the Pentagon that it is refusing a request for a port call in Hong Kong over the New Year's holiday by the guided missile frigate USS Reuben James, a Pentagon spokesman said.
"It is hard to believe that is not a topic of ongoing discussion," spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters, referring to the naval visits.
Top US military officials expressed surprise and anger last week after China abruptly cancelled a long-planned Hong Kong port call over November 21-24 by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its battle group.
Officials said Beijing also turned away two minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm and a US military flight to resupply the US consulate in Hong Kong, sparking one of the sharpest diplomatic rows since 2001.
Whitman said the defense consultative talks had long been scheduled, and the fact that they are being held shows that the Defense Department wants good military relations with Beijing.
"The United States Defense Department values this relationship and are only going to try to strengthen it through dialogue with their Chinese counterparts," he said.
Agenda items include US-Chinese military relations, global and regional security issues, the war on terror, and missile defense, he said.
Eric Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, is leading the US delegation. The Chinese delegation is led by Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of general staff for foreign affairs.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing in early November, and called for greater US-Chinese military contacts and a longer term strategic dialogue to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculation.
Relations between the two powers have been colored by a Chinese military buildup that the Pentagon believes is aimed at thwarting US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, and ultimately challenging its access to the region.
US suspicions intensified in January after a Chinese anti-satellite test in which a ballistic missile was used to destroy a Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit.
Top Pentagon officials have warned that China will be able to disrupt US military satellites in a regional conflict within three years.
In the flare-up over the port calls, the Pentagon took the unusual step of calling in the Chinese embassy's military attache to formally complain about the denial of access.
China has yet to fully explain its actions, but a foreign ministry spokesman implied last week it was in response to US arms sales to Taiwan and to President George W. Bush's recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
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