By Ben Blanchard
XIAN, China (Reuters) – A top Chinese general attended the opening on Monday of a regional armed forces health forum organised 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, attending.
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 one of Xian’s upmarket hotels.
Song, whose attendance was not previously publicly announced, 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 war and Chinese suspicion at both U.S. support for self-ruled and Chinese-claimed Taiwan, and U.S. involvement in the disputed South China Sea.
Song’s colleague, Chen Jingyuan, head of health at the Logistics Support Department, said the conference had improved relationships between the doctors and militaries of different nations.
“This is the first exchange between the Chinese and U.S. militaries on military health for the Asia Pacific, and has attracted high attention from Asia Pacific nations,” Chen said.
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.
At the event, which features mostly technical discussions on preventing disease and treating injuries, China’s armed forces will show off new equipment used for medical purposes, such as aircraft and vehicles.
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 sees as Beijing’s militarisation 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.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)