WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that he will visit China next year to capitalize on an improving trend in U.S.-China relations, even as Beijing casts a wary eye on the Pentagon's strategic "pivot" to Asia and the Pacific.
During a break in meetings at the Pentagon, Hagel and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chang Wanquan, told reporters they see room for greater U.S.-China military cooperation, including joint exercises and high-level visits. Chang affirmed that China's navy next year will participate for the first time in a major international maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific.
Hagel said he accepted Chang's invitation to visit Beijing in 2014. The last U.S. defense secretary to visit China was Leon Panetta in September 2012.
Chang and Hagel both spoke hopefully of building greater trust between the two nations' militaries and chipping away at long-held suspicions. But Chang in particular cautioned against mistaking his country's friendliness for weakness.
"No one should fantasize that China would barter away our core interests, and no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights," Chang said through an interpreter.
He appeared to be referring to China's disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other Asian nations over territorial boundaries in the South China Sea. Hagel alluded to these tensions, saying in a prepared statement that while the U.S. does not take sides in territorial claims, it encourages all parties to avoid allowing tensions to escalate into armed conflict.
Chang seemed to suggest that the U.S. not intervene in the territorial disputes.
"The Asia-Pacific is our common homeland," Chang said. "Any action that leads to trouble or provocation, any unwanted action out of self-interest or (that) further complicates or magnifies the situation would be highly irresponsible and will not lead to a favorable result."
The Obama administration for more than a year has promised a strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region following more than a decade of intense focus on the greater Middle East.
Chang said China hopes this shift, which Washington now calls a "rebalance," will be done constructively and as part of a comprehensive approach that includes greater U.S. economic and social interaction in the region. Already, however, it appears that Washington is focusing primarily on increased military activity, he said.
He said "certain Asia Pacific nations" have noticed that the military component of an adjusted U.S. strategy in the region is being "highlighted." He appeared to be alluding in part to new U.S. Marine rotational deployments to Australia.
"We also noticed that the frequency and intensity of such joint military exercises are increasing in recent time," he said. "To a certain degree this kind of intensified military activity further complicated the situation in the region." He did not elaborate.