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China general says open to U.S. defense boss visit

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese general said on Thursday that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was welcome to visit China at an "appropriate" time, possibly signaling a desire to soften military tensions between the two powers.

The comments from General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), reported by the official Xinhua agency, come weeks after Gates said China's decision to curtail military-to-military contacts could undercut regional stability.

Gates also said the PLA was the main obstacle to improved relations and suggested its position was at odds with that of the country's political leadership.

China scaled back military ties with the United States after the Obama administration notified Congress in January of a plan to sell the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which is claimed by Beijing, up to $6.4 billion worth of arms.

Other issues, from Tibet to trade, also contributed to souring ties between the superpower and rising Asian giant at the start of the year. But while the political relationship has since warmed, there has been little progress on military relations.

In what American officials took as a snub, China turned down a proposed visit by Gates aimed at mending fences during his trip to Asia in early June. Ma said China would be willing to host the U.S. defense chief in the future.

"We still welcome him to visit China at a time which is workable for both sides," Ma said when asked whether it would be possible for Gates to visit China, according to Xinhua.

On Tuesday, China denied media reports that an artillery drill in the East China Sea was in response to a planned military exercise between South Korea and the United States.

The six-day, live ammunition exercise starting on Wednesday in the East China Sea off China's coast was seen by some analysts as a "response to a (planned) joint exercise between the United States and Republic of Korea navies in the Yellow Sea," said the China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said there was no such link.

(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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