US, China hold maritime security talks in Hawaii

HONOLULU (AP) -- The U.S. and Chinese militaries have finished two days of talks over security on the high seas, the first such discussions since China broke off contact earlier this year to protest the U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan.

The resumption of military contacts after an eight-month freeze adds to what appears to be a warming of delicate U.S.-China relations. They came just days after China invited Defense Secretary Robert Gates to visit Beijing.

The U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement at the conclusion of Friday's session in Honolulu that the talks were aimed at increasing the safety of airmen and sailors and were important for a "sustained, reliable and meaningful military-to-military relationship."

There was no immediate comment from China on the talks. Calls to the defense ministry press office in Beijing rang unanswered.

The United States has long expressed concern about mishaps or near-mishaps when the two militaries operate near each other, such as in Asian territory.

"This week's discussions were designed to increase safety of our sailors and airmen operating in proximity," said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, who led the U.S. delegation. "It was a professional and frank exchange."

In 2001, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island. The Chinese pilot died and the U.S. crew of 24 was detained on Hainan for 11 days.

Last year, Chinese ships surrounded and harassed a U.S. Navy mapping ship, the USNS Impeccable, in international waters off China. The Chinese ships at one point came within 25 feet of the American boat and strewed debris in its path. China later said the U.S. ship was operating illegally inside China's exclusive economic zone.

Rear Adm. Liao Shining of the People's Liberation Army Navy led the Chinese side at the discussions.

The Pacific Command said both sides will report their findings to Defense Consultative Talks scheduled to be held in Washington Dec. 9-10.

China suspended military relations with the U.S. in January after objecting to a $6.4 billion U.S. arms package for Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory.

China signaled relations might be repaired when Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua told visiting U.S. Assistant Deputy Defense Secretary Michael Schiffer that regular dialogue and exchanges on military safety at sea and other issues would be resumed.

High-level contact came earlier this week when Gates met Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie at an Asian security meeting in Vietnam, where Gates accepted an invitation to visit Beijing. The Pentagon says Gates will likely go to the Chinese capital early next year.

Regional tensions and heated rhetoric have underscored the importance of regular contacts between the two militaries, much to the frustration of U.S. officers who complain of the lack of access to their Chinese counterparts.

China has been especially strident about U.S. involvement in territorial disputes in the South China Sea -- which Beijing claims in its entirety -- along with joint U.S.-South Korean anti-submarine drills in the Yellow Sea, part of which lies within Chinese sovereign waters.

China also claims to control water far off its coastline that the United States considers open water under international law, leading to the dispute over the USNS Impeccable. China considers the U.S. position on maritime navigation and security to be outside meddling in Asian affairs.

The maritime talks are a continuation of contacts begun in the late 1990s but subject to frequent interruption, usually at Chinese behest. They were last held in September 2009.

Associated Press Writer Cara Anna in Beijing contributed to this report.

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