By Ben Blanchard
XIAN, China (Reuters) – A top Chinese general attended the opening on Monday of a regional armed forces health forum organized by the Chinese and U.S. militaries, as the two sides set aside friction over trade and territorial issues such as the South China Sea.
This week’s Asia Pacific Military Health Exchange in the western city of Xian, best known as the home of the Terracotta Army, has about 600 participants, with military officials from 28 countries, including U.S. allies like Japan and Australia.
General Song Puxuan, head of China’s Central Military Commission’s Logistics Support Department, posed for pictures with Terry M. Rauch, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, at the opening ceremony in a Xian hotel.
Song, whose attendance was not announced in advance, did not address the conference. Military sources say he is close to President Xi Jinping and was previously head of the military’s northern command, having risen rapidly up the ranks since Xi took office six years ago.
China has been keen to highlight its cooperation with the U.S. military, despite a bitter trade dispute and Chinese suspicion about U.S. support for self-ruled and Chinese-claimed Taiwan, and U.S. involvement in the disputed South China Sea.
“This meeting can help promote the healthy and stable development of the two militaries’ ties, and make our contribution towards promoting peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, providing positive energy,” Song’s colleague, Chen Jingyuan, head of health at the Logistics Support Department, told reporters.
Speaking earlier, Chen hailed the exchange as a “first” between the Chinese and U.S. militaries on military health for the Asia Pacific.
‘IMPORTANT TO BE HERE’
Rear Admiral Louis C. Tripoli, command surgeon of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, thanked the People’s Liberation Army for its efforts in arranging the conference.
“We hope that you feel how important it is for us to be here,” Tripoli said.
He told reporters they had had “very good talks”.
“I believe that people are being transparent and are being truthful about the problems that we face in the region from a health standpoint and I believe that everyone is here and eager to work together to solve these problems,” Tripoli said.
China was angered in May when the United States withdrew an invitation to a major U.S.-hosted naval drill, saying that closing the door does not promote mutual trust and cooperation.
The Rim of the Pacific exercise, known as RIMPAC and previously attended by China, is billed as the world’s largest international maritime exercise and held every two years in Hawaii in June and July.
The Pentagon said the withdrawal of the invitation was in response to what it saw as China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea.
Still, China’s navy chief Shen Jinlong plans to pay a working visit to the United States later this month, during which he will attend an international naval forum, according to China’s Defence Ministry.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, robert Birsel)