THE United States still hopes to improve military relations with China this year, despite Beijing's 'counter-productive' rhetoric over Taiwan, Secretary of Defence William Cohen says. This could include co-operating 'on humanitarian-type missions, peacekeeping missions [and] de-mining', plus joint military operations to deal with natural disasters, the visiting Pentagon chief told the Sunday Morning Post. Mr Cohen has been invited to Beijing soon to discuss putting back on track a military relationship derailed by the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last May. A few small joint search-and-rescue exercises involving Chinese units and visiting US navy ships have already been held near Hong Kong. Mr Cohen said he hoped Chinese and American units could join future multinational forces created to deal with problems like that in East Timor. But he said China's recurring escalation of the Taiwan rhetoric was getting in the way, especially as it angered American congressmen, who soon will vote on bills affecting Sino-American relations. Mr Cohen said Friday's tough talk by Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan illustrated the point. 'I have never believed that threatening military action is going to be very productive,' he said. 'Normally, when you do that the people you're threatening, rather than bowing to the pressure, will get their backs up.' Moreover, 'a rhetorical escalation could lead to a miscalculation. It would not be in China's interest to use military force, and not in Taiwan's interest to have China resort to military force. Both parties would suffer', Mr Cohen said. China's sometimes erratic diplomacy also doesn't help. Senior American officials recently visited Beijing to hear that China wants to upgrade the US relationship. But they got no hint that the next day Beijing would issue its tough White Paper on Taiwan, which has poisoned the political atmosphere in Washington. 'It caught us by surprise,' Mr Cohen said. 'I can't speculate about their motivation as to why they couldn't give us some indication that it would contain . . . the passages which have provoked such controversy.' This could affect the pending Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, a US congressional bill which would require closer military links to Taiwan. Despite strong opposition from President Bill Clinton, it was passed by the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin. Whether it cleared the Senate 'will depend, frankly, on the level of rhetoric and the kind of actions that are taken. That's why I have encouraged everyone to step back', the Defence Secretary said. He called Foreign Minister Tang's 'blaming the United States for precipitating this crisis' to be reacting in 'a counter-productive way'. Taiwan's request for a theatre missile defence (TMD) system to protect itself from mainland rockets is one source of irritation between the US and China, even though Washington hasn't promised the technology to anyone and initial deployment anywhere is more than six years away. 'There is no active consideration, at this point at least, of TMD for Taiwan,' Mr Cohen said, but 'much depends on the level of the threat . . . [It] is not in China's interest to increase the threat to Taiwan because that will precipitate reaction in Congress saying that they need more defensive capability.' Mr Cohen yesterday met Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who plans a Washington visit early next month. He said he expected regular SAR port calls by US planes and ships to continue, following a four-month break after the Belgrade bombing. 'We are eager to have them, just as Hong Kong is eager for them to continue,' the Pentagon boss said. 'It is great for the morale of our troops.' He expressed satisfaction with 'very strict' local controls on the re-export to the mainland of US-made equipment of potential military use.