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BEIJING — U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon pushed Tuesday for stronger military relations with China, on the final day of a visit to Beijing to set the stage for a summit next month between President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping.
Nontraditional military activities such as peacekeeping, disaster relief and anti-piracy operations offer opportunities to boost cooperation and “contribute to greater mutual confidence and understanding,” Donilon told Gen. Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of the commission overseeing China’s armed forces.
A “healthy, stable and reliable military-to-military relationship” is an essential part of overall China-U.S. ties, Donilon said at the start of the meeting at China’s hulking Defense Ministry building in central Beijing.
Donilon met with a range of Chinese officials over two days to hammer out plans for the June 7-8 summit, the first face-to-face meeting between the presidents since Obama’s re-election and Xi’s promotion to Communist Party chief last November.
Their informal summit at the private Sunnylands estate of the late publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg in southern California will come months before the two leaders had been originally scheduled to meet, underscoring concerns that the U.S-China relationship was drifting.
Xi told Donilon on Monday that relations were at a critical juncture, and that the sides must now “build on past successes and open up new dimensions for the future.”
Building trust between their militaries is one of the main challenges the sides face in seeking to stop a drift in relations, troubled by issues from trade disputes to allegations of Chinese cyberspying.
Although Washington and Beijing have talked about boosting military cooperation for more than a decade, distrust runs high and disagreements over Taiwan, North Korea and China’s assertive claims to disputed territories in the East and South China seas remain potential flashpoints.
The U.S. has repeatedly questioned the purpose of China’s heavy military buildup over the past two decades, while Beijing is deeply suspicious of Washington’s new focus on military alliances in Asia and plans to redeploy more weaponry and troops to the Asia-Pacific region.
Steps to increase benign interactions between their militaries have been modest so far, including joint anti-piracy drills in the Gulf of Aden and a classroom natural disaster response simulation. The U.S. has also invited China to take part in large U.S.-led multinational naval exercises, though China has not said if it would participate.
Apart from purely military issues, distrust has deepened as the U.S. feels its world leadership challenged and China, its power growing, demands greater deference to its interests and a larger say over global rule-setting. Chinese officials and state media regularly say Washington is thwarting China’s rise by hemming Beijing in through its Asian alliances and discouraging Chinese investment in the U.S. on grounds of national security.