The strengthening of U.S. military alliances in Asia is not aimed at containing China, a top Pentagon official said Thursday after annual defense talks that reflected Chinese misgivings about America's regional agenda but also offered the possibility of more robust ties between the two militaries.
China has been concerned by a renewed focus on the Asia Pacific by the U.S. military as it winds down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including plans to rotate 2,500 Marines to Australia for training and strengthened military ties with allies Japan and the Philippines as well as former enemy Vietnam.
Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy said she told her Chinese counterparts, including Gen. Ma Xiaotian, that the moves were aimed at reassuring countries in the region of the continuing U.S. presence and boosting defense interoperability with Australia.
"We assured Gen. Ma and his delegation that the U.S. does not seek to contain China. We do not view China as an adversary," Flournoy told reporters at a briefing on the talks.
"This really isn't about China. This is about Australia and ensuring that we remain present in the region in a way that is really relevant to the kinds of, particularly nontraditional, challenges that we face," she said.
Many Chinese are convinced the U.S. moves are aimed at a rising China, particularly hard-line generals and other outspoken officers whose writings frequently appear in the deeply nationalist state-run media.
Many in Washington also see the moves as an attempt to curb growing Chinese assertiveness, an impression shored up by President Barack Obama during a visit to the region last month in which he asserted the role of the U.S. as a Pacific power.
Although China's military has lashed out at recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and other actions, Beijing's decision to proceed with Wednesday's talks appears to show it is placing a new importance on regular contacts between the sides, even as their rivalry sharpens.
In opening remarks Wednesday, Ma said going ahead with the 12th round of U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks shows both sides are committed to improving relations, managing and controlling risks and avoiding miscalculation.
Flournoy said the sides agreed to discuss rescheduling a series of exchanges postponed by Beijing in anger over Washington's announcement in September of a $5.85 billion package to upgrade Taiwan's F-16 fleet.
Those include visits by the U.S. Army Band and Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, along with joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia and a military medical exchange.
The U.S. is also expecting a visit next year by Chinese Vice President and expected future state leader XI Jinping, who currently serves as a vice chairman on the government and Communist Party committees that oversee the armed forces.
Flournoy said the sides also discussed international issues including North Korea's nuclear programs, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and anti-government uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Specific developments in military technology were not discussed, despite recent advancements in Chinese missile technology and the launch of its first aircraft carrier.
However, she described the aircraft carrier as something long anticipated and said the U.S. expected China to offer further explanations of its future use as part of steps toward greater transparency in the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army.
"In many ways it is a logical outgrowth of China's overall military development. I think we have yet to hear how they really see this," she said.