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WASHINGTON DC -- US and Chinese defense chiefs pledged Monday to work together on cyber threats and forge a dialogue on security as both sides steered clear of a diplomatic dispute over a top Chinese dissident.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie struck a positive note at a joint press conference at the Pentagon, announcing a joint counter-piracy naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden later this year and tentative plans to cooperate in the sensitive realm of cyber security.
Liang's trip marked the first visit by a Chinese defense minister to Washington in nine years and US defense officals were anxious to avoid any mention of blind rights campaigner Chen Guangcheng.
Chen "didn't come up" in the talks and officials had said beforehand that his fate was a subject for US diplomats at the State Department, not the Pentagon.
The dissident dramatically escaped house arrest and took refuge at the US embassy in Beijing on April 26, creating a dilemma for both governments just days before the arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Diplomats later said that a deal had been negotiated allowing Chen to head to the United States with his family to study. But China warned the United States to take measures to avoid a repeat of the Chen incident.
At the Pentagon news conference, Liang rejected US allegations that China is behind numerous cyber intrusions against US networks, but said both sides were ready to launch cooperative efforts to counter digital threats.
"In our discussion, we also talked about the possible ways that China and the US can jointly work on to try to find ways to strengthen... cybersecurity," Liang said through an interpreter.
The details would be worked out by "experts," he said.
Panetta welcomed Liang's offer and said "because the United States and China have developed technological capabilities in this arena, it's extremely important that we work together to develop ways to avoid any miscalculation or misperception that could lead to crisis in this area."
Concerned about China's rising military might, the Pentagon has long sought to forge a stronger security dialogue with China's top brass to ensure the rivalry does not escalate into conflict.
Defense relations, however, have remained an on-again-off-again affair, with China's generals periodically freezing contacts to protest Washington's arms sales to Taiwan and other moves.
Accompanied by a 24-member delegation including an array of senior officers, Liang was greeted with a US honor guard standing at attention on the steps of the Pentagon, while a Marine Corps band clad in red and white played the national anthems of each country.
Liang confirmed that China had extended an invitation for the Pentagon chief to visit China in the second half of this year, which US officials viewed as an encouraging step.
The talks touched on North Korea, maritime disputes in the South China Sea, cyberspace, nuclear proliferation, missile defense and cooperation on humanitarian operations, Panetta said.
US officials are concerned about China's anti-ship missiles, submarines and satellite technology potentially undermining American naval power in the Pacific and limiting the reach of US aircraft carriers.
But Beijing insists its military spending is purely defensive in nature, and has accused Washington of feeding tensions by portraying China as a threat.
Apart from the turbulence surrounding the Chinese dissident, Liang's visit came at a delicate moment with Beijing irritated over Washington's stance on Taiwan and its support for countries at loggerheads with China over territorial rights in the South China Sea.
Military contacts between China and the United States were suspended by Beijing in early 2010 when Washington unveiled a $6 billion arms contract with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.
Contacts were resumed at the end of the year shortly before then US defense secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing in January 2011.
In a week-long visit, Liang arrived in San Francisco on Friday and toured a US naval station on Saturday in San Diego, where he got a first-hand look at an American destroyer.
Liang is scheduled to visit the US Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Fort Benning Army base in Georgia, the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and the West Point military academy in New York before departing Thursday.