WASHINGTON (AFP) -US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld departs on a trip to China for talks on military relations as Beijing pursues an arms buildup that worries Washington.
Rumsfeld also will visit South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania in the weeklong round-the-world trip.
The China visit — Rumsfeld”s first since taking office nearly five years ago — will bring military ties full circle from a low in 2001 following the mid-air collision of a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet, officials said.
It comes amid growing US concerns over a military buildup by China that the Pentagon says is tipping the balance of power against Taiwan and appears aimed at checking US military power in the region.
Senior US defense officials who briefed reporters last week said they did not expect any major breakthroughs during the visit, but welcomed a serious high level dialogue with the Chinese.
One senior defense official said Rumsfeld”s visit would likely be a "non-euphoric encounter".
Rumsfeld”s discussions will also prepare the ground for a scheduled visit to China by President George W. Bush in the third week of November.
The secretary is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Defense Minister Cao Guangchuan, officials said.
After a US request, the Chinese agreed to allow Rumsfeld to visit the Beijing headquarters of China”s strategic rocket forces, something no American defense secretary has done before, the official said.
But the Chinese turned down a request to visit Western Hills, the defense ministry”s command center in Beijing, they said.
The United States has pressed Beijing to be more open to the world about its military activities to reduce the risks of miscalculation.
It has proposed establishing a telephone hotline between the US and Chinese defense establishments for use in times of crisis, but the idea has not been embraced by Beijing.
An effort to work out rules of the road in order to avert potential incidents at sea is only now getting underway, more than four years after the EP-3 incident, officials said.
A US defense official told reporters there is "uncertainty, not just in Washington but in the region, about China”s strategic direction, the intentions that underlie its military buildup."
The buildup was detailed in a Pentagon report in July that said China”s military spending was two to three times greater than publicly acknowledged.
It estimated Chinese defense spending at 90 billion dollars this year, putting it at third in the world after Russia and the United States.
The report was denounced by China as interference in its internal affairs and an attempt to foment discord with its neighbors.
Besides military ties, Rumsfeld also will discuss North Korea with his Chinese hosts, emphasizing US insistence on the verification of Pyongyang”s pledge to abandon its nuclear program, the officials said.
Rumsfeld will also stop in Seoul for talks with South Korean leaders on US-South Korean military relations.
Among the issues likely to be on the agenda is a recent suggestion by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that South Korea retain command over its forces in any war as well as in peacetime.
Under the existing mutual defense pact, operational control of the South Korean forces come under US command in a war.
Rumsfeld”s stops in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania aim to show US appreciation for their providing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Vilnius, he will attend a NATO meeting with Ukraine”s defense minister to encourage the former Soviet republic to stay on a path toward eventual NATO membership, officials said.