US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, struck a positive tone after two hours of talks in Beijing, saying they both wanted to build a military dialogue.
But there was no major breakthrough ahead of a visit to the United States next week by Chinese President Hu Jintao, and no sign from Beijing that they were ready to overlook the thorny issue of US arms sales to Taiwan.
"China's position has been clear and consistent. We are against it," Liang said of the arms deals with self-ruled Taiwan, which have repeatedly prompted Beijing to suspend military relations.
At a joint press conference with Gates, the general did not say whether Beijing would decide to allow military contacts to proceed after the sale of the next arms package.
He said the weapons deals with Taipei, which China views as part of its territory awaiting reunification, "seriously damage China's core interests and we do not want to see that happen again".
Beijing suspended military ties with the United States a year ago over Washington's sale of more than $6 billion in arms to Taiwan, and tentative plans for an earlier visit by Gates were called off.
Gates repeated the US view that military ties were too important to be "subject to shifting political winds" and said he came away from the talks "optimistic" about the prospects for better defence relations.
The trip to China by Gates, his first since 2007, comes just days ahead of Hu's trip to Washington, and both sides are keen to show some progress in defence ties.
US officials, including Gates, have for years appealed to China to embrace a permanent dialogue between military leaders regardless of political disputes, but the Chinese have tended to view defence relations as a bargaining chip.
The Chinese stopped short of endorsing a proposal from Gates for a "strategic dialogue" focusing on nuclear, missile defence, space and cyber-weaponry, but agreed to study the idea, the Pentagon chief said.
US military leaders are increasingly concerned over China's pursuit of sophisticated missiles, satellites, cyber-weapons and fighter jets, and worry that the lack of a regular security dialogue could aggravate tensions and spark a potential crisis.
Before arriving late Sunday, Gates voiced concern over the Asian power's anti-ship missiles and a new stealth fighter jet.
"They clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk. And we have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programmes," Gates told reporters travelling on his plane.
Asked about China's advanced weapons and the danger of an arms race, Liang said his country's military modernisation was not aimed at any other country and that the People's Liberation Army still lagged far behind the armed forces of other "advanced" states.
Photos surfaced in recent days of what appears to be China's first stealth fighter, a development that has highlighted China's massive military spending, as well as concerns in the region over its intentions.
Japan last month labelled Beijing's military build-up a global "concern", citing its increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. China also could threaten Washington's once unrivalled dominance of the Pacific.
The United States, however, is under mounting fiscal strain, forced to cut back some weapons programmes even as it fights a grinding war in Afghanistan.
Gates said the talks Monday also covered recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, including China's role in helping to ease a recent crisis that began after Pyongyang's deadly shelling of a South Korean island in November.
After his visit to China, Gates heads to Tokyo on Wednesday and Seoul on Friday for meetings focused on the Korean crisis.