Beijing, Nov 5: China and the United States agreed today to open a military hotline as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates held talks in Beijing aimed at strengthening ties overshadowed by years of mistrust.
Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan said the two countries had directed technical experts to press ahead with consultations, but neither gave a timeline for when the link might be opened.
Both Gates and Cao stressed a desire to build a closer relationship between their militaries, but mutual wariness remains.
Gates said last week he did not currently see China as a threat to the United States. But Beijing is engaged in a rapid military buildup and Washington says it has yet to adequately explain the reasons behind it.
''The United States has a relationship with China that is candid, constructive and cooperative,'' Gates said Today.
''We reached agreement on implementation of a direct telephone link between our two defence establishments,'' he told reporters following a meeting with Cao.
Washington has long been interested in establishing a defence hotline with China and Beijing has previously signalled its approval. But the project has not been realised.
US officials had expected China to embrace the idea again during Gates' visit. But they said the talks on finalising the arrangements would be the true test of whether Beijing really had the political will to establish such a direct link.
China's official Xinhua news agency said the link would be the first of its kind between Beijing and another country at defence ministry level.
IMPROVED TIES Military relations between China and the United States hit a low point in 2001, when they broke off contacts following a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane.
While ties have improved markedly since then, Washington says Beijing is concealing its true defence budget and fears China's military build-up is aimed at projecting its growing power.
Washington was especially alarmed when Beijing successfully shot down one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile in a test in January. The United States has said it has yet to receive a satisfactory explanation for the test.
Asked if he had received such an explanation at today's talks with Cao, Gates replied tersely: ''I raised our concerns about it and there was no further discussion.'' China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has vowed to bring the democratically ruled island under its rule, by force if necessary, maintains that its armed forces are geared merely for self-defence.
It denies that it is dishonest about its military budget, which it says will reach about 45 billion dollars this year -- a rise of 17.8 per cent from the previous year.
Questioned by a U.S. reporter about the military buildup, Cao said through an interpreter: ''It has been normal deployment of our military force in our own territory.'' Cao said he and Gates had agreed their navies would conduct a complex joint exercise ''at the proper time''.
They had also agreed to more educational exchanges and closer cooperation between military archives to resolve the fate of US troops missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, Cao said.
Gates was due to meet President Hu Jintao tomorrow, before going on to visit South Korea and Japan later in the week.