By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and China agreed on Monday to expand military exchanges and exercises as part of efforts to build more stable ties, despite tensions over cyber security and East Asian territorial disputes.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan spelled out plans this year for senior American officers to visit China, counter-piracy drills in waters near Somalia and a humanitarian rescue exercise near Hawaii.
Their talks at the Pentagon represent efforts by Washington and Beijing to find constructive ways to deal with strains over reported Chinese cyber-attacks against U.S. government agencies and businesses. There are also growing concerns about China's assertiveness in territorial disputes with U.S. allies in Asia, notably Japan and the Philippines.
Hagel said he and Chang wanted to build "a sustained, substantive military-to-military relationship" to bolster ties between the world's two biggest economies.
"Our goal is to build trust between our militaries through cooperation," Hagel told reporters.
Chang stressed a similar theme of cooperation with the United States in the Asia-Pacific, but also voiced concern about the U.S. policy of shoring up its military presence and revitalizing its alliances in the Pacific region.
"To a certain degree, these kinds of intensified military activities further complicated the situation in the region," the Chinese general said through an interpreter. "We hope that this strategy does not target a specific country in the region."
Without mentioning rival claimants in disputes over maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea and East China Sea, Chang said "no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty, and maritime rights."
Hagel repeated Washington's official position that it takes no stance on East Asian maritime sovereignty questions, but insists the disputes be addressed without the use of force.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh will visit China this year, and Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of China's navy, will travel to the United States, Hagel said.
The planned exchanges for 2013 will be followed next year by Hagel's first visit to China as Pentagon chief and China's maiden participation in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), which is hosted by the United States and billed as the world's largest international maritime warfare drill.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)