The top U.S. military officer is traveling to China this weekend just as a multinational Navy exposition wraps up in neighboring Brunei with a drill in the hotly contested South China Sea.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left Friday and is expected to arrive in China on Sunday to begin four days of meetings with Chinese military officials and visits to military units in Beijing and along the eastern coast.
His visit is part of an effort to ease frosty relations with Beijing after a series of setbacks in recent years, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, repeated incidents of cyberattacks emanating from China and concerns about that nation's growing military buildup.
But Mullen's arrival will coincide with what Pentagon officials called a low-level, routine communications drill about six miles off the coast of Brunei in the southern edge of the vast South China Sea.
China regards the entire South China Sea and island groups within it as its own and interprets international law as giving it the right to police foreign naval activity there. The U.S. insists that its Navy has a right to transit the area and collect surveillance data and has supported multilateral negotiations to resolve the differences.
On Friday, Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby called the drill a "freedom of navigation exercise in international waters" and said it "poses no threat to any nation in the region and shouldn't be taken that way."
The naval exposition, known as BRIDEX2011, is taking place in Brunei and wraps up Saturday with a fleet review and what's called a "passing exercise." During that drill, ships practice communications with each other as they pass, and in some cases they will do brief exchanges of staff or aircraft. The USS Preble, a Navy destroyer, is slated to participate in the drill.
China is participating in the Brunei exposition, along with a number of other nations, including India, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.
Activity in the South China Sea is a politically volatile issue, with China, Vietnam and the Philippines trading barbs over their overlapping territorial claims.
It sparked a tense exchange last month as China chafed at a U.S. Senate resolution criticizing Beijing's use of force in recent incidents between Chinese vessels and those of other nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the U.S. resolution "doesn't hold water" and said the dispute should be resolved only by those nations directly involved.
Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew China's wrath when she told a regional conference that the U.S. had a "national interest" in seeing territorial disputes in the South China Sea resolved through a "collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants."
Military relations with China, however, were frozen when the weapons sale to Taiwan was announced. Taiwan is a self-governing island that China claims as its own territory and that the U.S. is committed to arming.
A thaw began when Defense Secretary Robert Gates' traveled to Beijing in January, followed by a productive visit to Washington shortly afterward by President Hu Jintao.
In May, a Chinese delegation led by Gen. Chen Bingde, Mullen's counterpart, came to Washington for meetings, then visited a number of military facilities, including Navy and Air Force bases. During that visit _ the first of its kind in seven years _ Chen invited Mullen for a similar tour through China.