By Chris Lawrence
The Pentagon welcomed on Monday the highest-ranking Chinese military official to visit the United States in nearly a decade: China's minister of national defense, Gen. Liang Guanglie.
He met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a continuing effort by the Pentagon to understand China's rapid military expansion and build a relationship with the Asian giant.
After the meeting the two announced that later this year Panetta would be travelling to China and the U.S. and Chinese militaries will be conducting a joint anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.
"We'd like to have a better understanding of the purpose of the Chinese military modernization program," a senior U.S. defense official said. "We want to better understand why China is investing in a very robust and rapid military modernization program, given that when we look around the region we see an area of the world at peace."
The official spoke to reporters about the visit on the condition no name was used.
Liang arrived this weekend and visited a San Diego naval base. He met with a U.S. Navy commander just back from a counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. The senior Defense official said the Pentagon would like to deepen its counterpiracy operations with the Chinese military.
After meeting with Panetta on Monday, Liang will travel to the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command on Tuesday and meet with its commander, Gen. Douglas Fraser. The defense official said that meeting will focus on cooperating on disaster relief and counternarcotics missions.
On Wednesday, Liang will go to Fort Benning in Georgia and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to meet with non-commissioned officers.
On Thursday he will observe fighter jet training at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina to "demonstrate openness and transparency" on the U.S. side, according to the defense official. The visit will end with a stop at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
On contentious issues such as U.S. military sales to Taiwan and American naval presence in the South China Sea, the official said, "These are issues that come up in these types of exchanges."
The official said the United States will try to allay some of China's concerns over Pentagon's "rebalancing" of its assets to shift more focus, and forces, into the Pacific. "We use every opportunity to engage the People's Liberation Army, and improve their understanding of what we're doing in Asia."
One contentious issue that is likely to be off the table, the official said, is Chen Guangcheng. The Chinese activist sparked a diplomatic storm when he broke out of house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
"We don't plan to raise that issue," the senior defense official said, and it is unlikely Liang will bring it up.
U.S. and Chinese military officials are also likely to discuss cyberwarfare and China's current relationship with North Korea.
"We continue to have concerns about stability on the Korean Peninsula," the defense official said.
The official refused to say if there were any installations the Chinese asked to see, but were refused.