By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Chinese general rejected growing American concerns about China's military buildup Wednesday, telling audiences at the National Defense University and the Pentagon that the People's Liberation Army was no threat.
"The world has no need to worry, let alone fear ... China's growth," said General Chen Bingde, chief of the PLA general staff, in a rare address to a packed room of U.S. military officers and faculty at the National Defense University.
But the reassurances by Chen during a high-profile visit to the United States were also accompanied by fresh warnings against any future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which underscored the fragile nature of the relationship.
As members of Congress press for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province, Chen warned that new U.S. weapons sales to the self-ruled island would damage military ties.
"As to how bad the impact will be, it will depend on the nature of the weapons sold to Taiwan," Chen told a Pentagon media briefing.
With an occasional smile, Chen quoted U.S. presidents including Abraham Lincoln to drive home his points. He turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous quote "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," trying to allay concerns about China.
Military ties are perhaps the weakest link in relations between the world's two largest economies -- which have also been tested in the past year by disputes over trade, currency, North Korea and human rights.
Chen is the highest ranking official to lead a military delegation to the United States since Beijing cut off ties to the United States in 2010 over a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan worth up to $6.4 billion.
Those ties appeared to gain new footing during Defense Secretary Robert Gates' January trip to Beijing, even though it was overshadowed by a test flight of China's J-20 stealth fighter that again stoked concerns about its military buildup.
China also plans to develop aircraft carriers, anti-ship ballistic missiles and other advanced systems which have alarmed the Asian powers and the United States, the dominant power in the Pacific. U.S. officials accuse Beijing of designing their weapons system to counter U.S. capabilities.
DECADES BEHIND THE WEST?
Chen played down Chinese military advances on his trip, telling the audience of U.S. military officers and faculty at the National Defense University the People's Liberation Army lagged at least 20 years behind developed Western nations.
"To be honest, I feel very sad after visiting (the United States), because I think, I feel and I know, how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped we remain," Chen said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chen's host, stressed the importance of renewed dialogue to minimize the risk of misunderstanding.
"What he and I have both talked about is a future that is a peaceful future and a better one for our children and grandchildren. That does not include a conflict between China and the United States," Mullen told reporters.
But some members of Congress criticized the U.S. military for too openly engaging with Chen and his delegation, particularly his access to U.S. military facilities. Chen will visit Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, home to some high-tech U.S. defenses.
"There can be no doubt that every scrap of information this expert delegation collects will be used against us," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a statement.
"The Chinese military openly regards the United States as an enemy," she said. "We should not undermine our own security by thinking we can make friends with self-proclaimed adversaries with hospitality and open arms."
Still, the Chinese and U.S. economies, Chen noted, are inextricably linked. China has the world's biggest foreign exchange reserve, with about two-thirds estimated to be held in dollars. Jokes about U.S. dependence on China to finance its debt are commonplace in the United States, and Chen appeared to seize the opportunity in Washington.
Talking about fiscal constraints on China's military, Chen got a long round of laughter from his U.S. audience by joking: "If you can lend us some money, I think that would be easier."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert and Susan Cornwell; editing by Todd Eastham)