Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen on Monday became the first Western official to visit a once-secret air defense center in China’s capital in what U.S. officials called an important step in improving military relations between Beijing and Washington.
Cohen, earlier, said he was pleased with a statement by China’s defense minister that Beijing has ended sales of C-801 and C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran. China reportedly has sold several such missiles to Iran in defiance of U.S. concerns that they could threaten shipping lanes in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
On the third day of a four-day trip to China, Cohen also concluded the first formal agreement between the U.S. Defense Department and the Chinese military - a protocol designed to prevent incidents at sea.
The developments underscored significant improvement in one of Washington’s most sensitive military relationships - between the world’s most powerful country and its most populous one. Less than two years ago, a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group was facing off against Chinese forces on military exercises near the Strait of Taiwan and tension was high in both capitals.
Since then, U.S. and Chinese officials have labored to improve ties despite domestic opposition, lingering mistrust and strong disagreement over Taiwan - an island nation of 21 million people that China considers to be a rogue province and the United States is legally bound to support. Cohen’s trip - the fifth leg of a seven-nation tour of East Asia - has built on a groundswell of good feelings engendered by the October meeting between President Clinton and China’s President Jiang Zemin.
Monday, Cohen tried to calm Chinese concerns that Washington’s strengthened defense ties with Japan, Australia and, recently, the Philippines and Singapore are designed to contain China.
“Today, China is an Asian power and rightfully so,” Cohen said in a speech to the Academy of Military Science. “The United States does not fear this, nor do we view China as an adversary.”
China’s defense minister, Chi Haotian, responded that the United States also should not fear China’s push to become a regional power.