Pentagon envoy carries US hopes of better Beijing ties

A senior Pentagon official heads to Beijing on Friday for the first high-level Sino-US military talks in a year amid hopes in Washington the WTO deal will boost wider ties.

Both senior State and Defence Department officials said they hoped for a lift in atmosphere in Beijing as Washington feels its way towards a new relationship in the wake of the American-led Nato bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade on May 7.

A Clinton administration official said: 'The WTO [World Trade Organisation] deal has got to lift the atmospherics in the weeks ahead. We've still got a long way to go to get this relationship back to where we were, but in the short-term certainly there is a new air of hope and goodwill.' The first test will come with the visit by Dr Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asia and the Pacific, who will meet senior Chinese military officials.

Getting the fledgling defence engagement back on track is proving one of the toughest priorities to meet following the bombing, despite recently bullish statements by Defence Secretary William Cohen.

The official said: 'We are not yet fully sure if China is ready yet to re-engage on defence, so there is still a lot of trust to be built back up. People should not underestimate just how fragile things are at the moment.' Dr Campbell is likely to seek to restart meaningful talks on bilateral and regional security issues as well as possible confidence-building measures, such as ship visits and exchanges.

The recently restored ability of certain US military craft to visit Hong Kong would continue to be decided case by case.

If successful, the visit is expected to finalise arrangements for the arrival in Washington around the turn of the year of a delegation headed by General Xiong Guangkai, PLA Vice-Chief of Staff, for the third annual defence consultations.

The United States side hopes the quick approval of retired Admiral Joseph Prueher as Washington's new ambassador to Beijing will also help cement ties.

As Pacific commander, Admiral Prueher was responsible for the two aircraft carrier battle groups deployed to the Taiwan Strait during the 1996 crisis surrounding the island's presidential election, but was also a key player in the initial military talks which followed.