WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said here on Wednesday the military relationship between the United States and China is steadily improving despite a recent incident between the two sides over an American surveillance ship in the South China Sea.
"One of the concerns that I have about Impeccable (the US surveillance ship) is that my impression was that the military relationship was steadily improving," Gates said at a news briefing.
The Pentagon complained earlier last week that the US surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, was confronted by Chinese ships on March 8 in areas off China's Hainan Island.
China rejected the US accusation and said the US surveillance ship was operating "illegally" within its exclusive economic zone.
"I would like to see us put this behind us, not have another incident like it, and continue that improvement in the relationship," Gates said.
Responding to a question, the defense secretary said he does not think China is pushing the 7th Fleet of the United States out of the South China Sea and there is no need for the United States to send destroyers or warships to the region to escort other US ships.
He said based on the diplomatic exchanges that have taken place since the incident went public, he does not expect a repetition of such incidents. "So it would make it unnecessary to send warships," he said.
The incident about the Impeccable surfaced shortly before Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's arrival in the United States for a five-day working visit as guest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After her meeting with Yang last Wednesday, Clinton told reporters that the two sides agreed on the need to reduce tensions and avoid a repeat of a similar confrontation between American and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.
"We both agreed that we should work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again," she said.
"We have each stated our positions, but the important point of agreement coming out of my discussions with Minister Yang is that we must work hard in the future to avoid such incidents and to avoid this particular incident having consequences that are unforeseen," she said.