Singapore: The United States appealed to China on Saturday to restore military ties despite discord over US arms sales to Taiwan and said it was considering options beyond the United Nations to punish North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean ship.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said China`s decision to break off military-to-military contacts between the Pacific powers earlier this year could undercut regional stability.
He urged Beijing to accept the "reality" that Washington is committed to arming Taiwan, like it or not.
"It has been clear to everyone during the more than 30 years since normalization that interruptions in our military relationship with China will not change United States policy toward Taiwan," Gates told a security conference in Singapore.
China broke off military-to-military contacts after the Obama administration notified Congress in January of a plan to sell Taiwan up to $6.4 billion worth of arms.
To underscore its displeasure over the continued sales, China took the extraordinary step of turning down a proposed fence-mending visit by Gates during his trip to Asia.
"There is a real cost to any absence of military-to-military relations," Gates told the conference, where he held talks with top ministers from across Asia with the exception of the Chinese, who sent a lower-level representative.
Gates said "sustained and reliable" contacts between the two militaries were needed to reduce the risk of "miscommunication, misunderstanding and miscalculation" that could lead inadvertently to conflict.
He also called it the "collective responsibility" of Asian states to address North Korean "provocations," increasing pressure on a reluctant China to rebuke its long-time ally.
But Gates and other US officials suggested the United States was looking beyond measures in the UN Security Council and could act unilaterally or in concert with its allies to increase Pyongyang`s isolation.
Gates has singled out China`s People`s Liberation Army (PLA) as the main obstruction in the way of improved relations, saying its position was at odds with that of the country`s political leadership, which he has said supports closer military ties.
"Only in the military-to-military arena has progress on critical mutual security issues been held hostage over something that is, quite frankly, old news," Gates said.
He said arms sales to Taiwan have spanned decades and were "an important component of maintaining peace and stability in cross-strait relations and throughout the region" because China`s own military buildup is largely focused on the self-ruled island.
Gates said this should not be seen as threatening to China because the United States has long made clear it does not support independence for Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.
A senior member of the Chinese delegation, Major General Zhu Chenghu of the National Defense University, challenged Gates directly after his speech, saying his country was not to blame for stalling military-to-military ties.
He said US arms sales to Taiwan ran counter to Beijing`s "core" interests and sent the message that America saw the Chinese as "enemies."
Gates chaffed at the characterization: "I would just like to state for the record that the United States does not consider China as an enemy but as a partner in many areas."
After his speech, Gates shook hands with the head of the Chinese delegation, General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the PLA`s general staff, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Ma played down the extent to which Beijing has scaled back contacts with the US military, saying only high-level visits have been "temporarily suspended."
Some US officials saw the friction with China as particularly worrisome given heightened tensions in the region after the United States and South Korea concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors.
Seoul has referred the matter to the UN Security Council, but it is unclear what action, if any, the body will take.
Beijing, which is North Korea`s only major ally and which fought alongside the North in the Korean War, has declined publicly to join international condemnation of Pyongyang, saying it is still assessing the evidence.
As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can veto any proposed resolution or statement.
Pentagon strategists have voiced alarm at what they see as China`s faster-than-expected military build-up, from powerful anti-ship missiles to an advanced combat jet that may rival the premier US fighter, Lockheed Martin Corp`s F-22 Raptor, within eight years.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US military`s Pacific Command, said there were concerns across the region about the "intent" of China`s "profound" military buildup and increased maritime "assertiveness."