By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie will visit the Pentagon and several U.S. military bases next week as part of a trip U.S. defense officials hope will help to deepen security cooperation between the two countries, officials said on Wednesday.
The visit comes despite a flare-up in tensions between the two countries after a Chinese dissident escaped from house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy, where he remained for days while negotiating with China over the terms of his return. China accused U.S. diplomats of meddling and demanded an apology.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will host Liang for talks at the Pentagon on Monday. The Chinese defense minister later in the week will visit Naval Base San Diego, U.S. Southern Command in Florida, Fort Benning in Georgia, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the military academy at West Point and other bases.
"The reason for the visit ... is to attempt to further strengthen our military cooperation and contacts with the Chinese," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said, noting that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping recently visited the Defense Department as well.
"We believe that this is an important point on the trajectory of increased cooperation with our Chinese counterparts," he said.
The long-planned visit comes just weeks after the White House sent a letter to U.S. Senator John Cornyn saying it was giving "serious consideration" to his proposal for modernizing Taiwan's air force with the sale of additional F-16 aircraft.
China is extremely sensitive about the sale of arms to Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province. Beijing severed military-to-military ties with the United States in January 2010 over arms sales to Taiwan and only resumed the relationship in early 2011.
Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the letter should have no impact on Liang's visit, which he said had been planned long ago and would be followed soon by a Panetta visit to Beijing.
"This is part of the routine dialogue that we have tried to maintain with our counterparts in the PRC (People's Republic of China," Kirby said.
With China's military expanding rapidly and the United States undertaking a strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, U.S. officials have underscored the importance of building cooperative ties between the two militaries to help avert any misunderstandings as they come into increasing contact.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)