BEIJING -- The friendly, pragmatic turn in U.S. policy on China was strikingly evident here yesterday at the end of high-level talks that marked resumed cooperation between the two nations' military forces.
Following a three-day visit -- the first by a high-ranking U.S. military official since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre -- Chas. W. Freeman Jr., assistant defense secretary, stressed cooperation with the Chinese military rather than conflicts over its arms sales.
U.S. military sanctions imposed after the 1989 crackdown will remain in effect, he said. These include the suspension of certain weapon sales to the Chinese army and a ban on the transfer of some technologies with military applications.
But, he said, the U.S. military will resume exchanges with the Chinese army, known as the Peoples Liberation Army. Those exchanges were largely halted in the wake of the slaughter of the hundreds of unarmed, pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Mr. Freeman did not provide details of new exchanges, but he said the restricted military dialogue between the two nations for more than four years has "taken a toll in terms of mutual understanding."
"It's just a matter of logic if you don't have contact and dialogue, it's easy to be unaware of the other side's viewpoint and to misinterpret that viewpoint on occasion," he said. "In other words, ignorance can breed suspicion and mistrust.
"We want to understand more about the direction of their military planning . . . not because we regard China as a threat but because we regard China as an important factor in world politics, in the security of this region, as a potential partner in many ways," he said.
Mr. Freeman's comments conform with recent reports from Washington that U.S. defense officials are worried China's military leaders -- likely to play a key role after the death of senior leader Deng Xiaoping -- increasingly view the U.S. as an opponent in Asia.
His emphasis on mutual understanding also was in line with a turn earlier this fall in U.S. policy toward China. Instead of threatening China, the Clinton administration now is trying to use cooperative inducements to defuse mounting tensions over Chinese human rights abuses, trade malpractices and arms sales.
These inducements include a series of high-level meetings with U.S. officials, among them the first meeting between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Seattle later this month.
While there has been no concrete Chinese response that indicates the new U.S. stance is producing positive results, China did issue a relatively warm statement yesterday regarding Mr. Freeman's visit.
"This is a good beginning," the state news service quoted Gen. Liu Huaqing, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, as saying. "The international situation has been undergoing profound changes with the end of the Cold War. But wide-ranging common interests still exist between China and the United States."
One common interest expressed by Mr. Freeman yesterday is the possibility of the two nations' forces working together in United Nations peacekeeping ventures.
To this end, Mr. Freeman cited China's "fine performance" as part of the recent U.N. peace-keeping operation in Cambodia. He said the likelihood that U.S. and Chinese forces would end up together in a similar situation makes it "important to know how to cooperate."
Mr. Freeman reported no progress on the issue of Chinese arms sales. But even on this conflict, he stressed the potential for cooperation, saying the U.S. takes "satisfaction" that "Chinese thinking on these issues has moved a long way from where it was several years ago and is much closer to our own thinking."
But he also said the U.S. military would not return to the kind of relations it had with China in the 1980s, which involved weapons and technology sales.