BEIJING – U.S. defense officials came away Monday with few answers to their many questions about China's military build-up, but the two countries agreed to work together on efforts to steer Iran away from its nuclear ambitions.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, after a 90-minute meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, said the two "agreed that is it important to pursue efforts to persuade the Iranian government to change their behavior and their policies peacefully, through diplomatic means."
And, with a nod to China's reluctance to support greater economic sanctions against Iran, Gates said he stressed to Cao the importance of using such pressure to convince the Iranian government "to make different choices."
Looking ahead to Gates' meeting Tuesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, senior defense officials said later they are hoping for a stronger statement from the leader on the use of sanctions and other pressure against Iran.
The officials, describing the meeting with Cao on condition of anonymity because it was private, said the U.S. delegation was pleased with the quality of the discussion on Iran. The Chinese, they said, were "very strong" in saying that they are united in opposing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Carefully worded statements by both Gates and Cao signaled greater dialogue between the United States and the communist giant — a significant improvement over the past decade. But they also hinted at little tangible progress in the Pentagon's press for greater transparency in China's military ambitions, and better explanations about its burgeoning defense budget.
Asked whether Cao had provided any more information about the anti-satellite test the Chinese conducted in January, Gates wryly responded, "I raised our concerns about it and there was no further discussion."
There have been lingering questions about the test, in which a Chinese missile shattered a defunct Chinese weather satellite. The test drew immediate criticism from the U.S. and other countries, who questioned China's commitment to peaceful development in space.
Gates said he "raised with Minister Cao the uncertainty over China's military modernization, and the need for greater transparency to allay international concerns."
"China's increasing political and economic stature calls for this country to take on a greater share of responsibility for the health and success of the international system," said Gates, standing next to Cao at a press briefing after their meeting.
Cao, speaking through an interpreter, described the session as pragmatic, candid and productive. Asked to detail specific results from the meeting, Cao said China agreed to participate in a joint Navy exercise with the U.S. "at a proper time." And he said China will cooperate more in accounting for U.S. prisoners of war from the Korean War.
China's military budget increased by about 17.8 percent to about $45 billion this year, the largest annual increase in more than a decade. And Pentagon officials have suggested the spending may be somewhat higher than that.
Gates said the meeting is part of a move to deepen the dialogue between the two nations. And he added that "progress in our defense exchanges will largely depend on the choices we make."
Cao indicated that there was a bit of movement toward the long-discussed establishment of a military hotline between Beijing and Washington. He said he is urging efforts to make the technical changes needed so the direct telephone link can be finalized.
Pentagon officials have said the phone line would be an important symbolic move as well as an important connection between the nations when an incident or crisis occurs.
They add, however, that despite positive statements from the Chinese, details continue to bog down the actual establishment of the phone line.
Gates and his senior policy staff met with the Chinese officials at the defense ministry's headquarters, in the midst of a city undergoing massive construction in preparation for next year's Olympic Games.
The U.S. has repeatedly raised concerns the Chinese are providing conventional weapons and other dual-use technologies that can have nuclear applications to countries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Some weapons sold to Iran have surfaced in Afghanistan and Iraq, prompting the Pentagon to call for the Chinese to better control their sales to Iran.
Gates is scheduled to meet with Hu Tuesday morning. This is his first trip to China since taking over as Pentagon chief nearly one year ago, and it is the fourth visit by a U.S. defense secretary in the past decade.