An influential retired Chinese general has warned that Sino-US military ties are failing to keep pace with the two nations’ rapidly evolving economic and political relationship.

“The military-to-military relationship lags behind the overall relationship between the Chinese and the American authorities,” Xiong Guangkai, former head of military intelligence for the People’s Liberation Army, told the Financial Times at the end of an unprecedented fence-mending visit to the US. “We’ve spent the past eight days working to raise the level of this relationship.”

Earlier this month Admiral Timothy Keating, the retired US commander for the Pacific, warned that poor communications between the two militaries increased the risk that occasional friction between their navies could develop into more serious incidents.

Gen Xiong’s tour concluded on the eve of a visit by PLA representative Xu Caihou, vice-chairman of the Chinese communist party’s Central Military Commission.

Gen Xu, the highest-ranking Chinese defence official to visit the US since 2006, arrives in America on Sunday to meet senior officials including Robert Gates, US defence secretary.

Gen Xiong led a delegation of retired Chinese military officials to Honolulu, Washington and New York, funded by private donors including Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former AIG chairman.

The US government arranged for meetings between Mr Xiong’s team and senior officials, including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and a brief meeting with Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state.

“While we have no official status, as a private group we have found a way to talk about issues that provides more credibility than an organisation with an axe to grind,” said Bill Owens, a retired US navy admiral who escorted the delegation. “We look to be a model for active-duty military where the relationship is officially not very good.”

Admiral Owens began the initiative last year when he led a delegation of former US military commanders to Hainan in the South China Sea on a private visit.

The bilateral exchange concluded in New York on Thursday with a visit to the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier, where the Chinese and US national anthems were played and Gen Xiong led the group in a rendition of the song “The more we get together”.

When Gen Xu sits down with Mr Gates on Monday, one topic will be how to prevent the increasing number of incidents between their two navies.

US vessels and aircraft routinely patrol international waters and airspace off China’s coast, a practice that has led to friction.

In March, the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance vessel, employed water cannons when reportedly harassed by Chinese vessels off Hainan. The US has said five more such incidents occurred this year.

China insists foreign military vessels can only enter waters it defines as its exclusive economic zone with Beijing’s approval, a position at odds with most other countries’ interpretation of international law.

Earlier attempts to formulate a set of “rules of the road” has so far failed to yield results.

In August, China called on the US to phase out its surveillance missions close to the Chinese coast.

The head of the US Pacific command, Admiral Robert Willard, this week reasserted the right of the American navy to “operate militarily and with our commercial ships in international waters throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”

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