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Oct 23, 5:15 AM EDT

China, Iran defense officials pledge closer ties

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BEIJING (AP) -- China's defense minister met Thursday with Iran's navy commander in the latest sign of warming ties between their two militaries following their first joint naval drills in the Persian Gulf last month.

Chang Wanquan told visiting Iranian Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari that China hopes for "further pragmatic cooperation and the uninterrupted development of ties between the two militaries," China's Defense Ministry said.

It quoted Sayyari as saying that Iran attached great importance to its relations with China and also hoped for stronger military-to-military ties.

China has been building closer ties with the militaries of U.S. rivals such as Russia to help counter American naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

China and Iran also maintain close economic links, although Beijing has joined international efforts to prod Iran into cooperating with the global community over its nuclear programs.

Although China eschews the notion of setting up permanent overseas bases, even an occasional presence in the Persian Gulf - where the U.S. Navy maintains a robust permanent presence - advances Beijing's goal of operating a true "blue water" navy able to operate far from Chinese shores.

China's navy has taken part in regular anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia since late 2008, a move seen as vastly improving its long-range capabilities while helping protect its vital ocean links to Middle Eastern energy supplies.

In the five-day exercises last month, a Chinese destroyer and missile frigate joined rescue exercises along with their Iranian counterparts.

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