By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China's military build-up looks likely to continue "unabated" and independent of recent U.S. moves to reposition forces in Asia, the U.S. military commander for the Asia-Pacific region said on Tuesday.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, said Washington's policy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region has drawn China's attention since it was unveiled last year, but did not drive Beijing's build-up.
"We've not seen Chinese military growth affected by the announcement, nor do we expect it to be. It has continued relatively unabated," Willard told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"They continue to advance their capabilities and capacities in all areas," he said at a hearing, days before China is expected to unveil its 2012 military budget at the annual meeting of China's parliament in Beijing.
Under a strategy designed to reposition forces eastward after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington will keep large bases in Japan and South Korea, deploy up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia and step up military cooperation with the Philippines.
Willard, referring to Chinese perceptions of U.S. policy, said: "I think they see themselves in that statement ... and will continue to observe very closely for the actions the United States takes to back up those words."
China has recorded a run of double-digit increases in the People's Liberation Army budget over the past two decades.
Last year, Beijing said it would increase military spending to 601.1 billion yuan ($95.43 billion) in 2011, a 12.7 percent rise on the previous year, resuming double-digit growth after a dip to 7.5 percent growth in 2010.
MILITARY DIPLOMACY LAGS
China is "growing bolder with regard to their expanded regional and global presence, and China continues to challenge the United States and our partners in the region in the maritime, cyber and space domains," said Willard.
He repeated a long-standing Pentagon lament that U.S.-China military-to-military relations are "not where we want them to be," despite high-level pledges to deepen those ties.
Military-to-military relations lagged as a result of differences over the purpose of such exchanges; China's tendency to suspend military contacts following U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; and Beijing's policy of linking American defense policies and demanding concessions before ties can advance, Willard said in written testimony to the Senate panel.
"Nonetheless, we remain committed to evolving this security relationship with the objective of coexisting peacefully and both contributing constructively to regional security," he said.
In contrast to China's wary view of the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, the Pentagon sees "encouragement that has come from ... virtually all the actors in the region, with regard to their desire for U.S. staying power and influence in the region," said Willard.
"I don't think it's just about China," he said of China's neighbors who have encouraged the U.S. rebalancing.
Several countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, are locked in thorny maritime territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. They have sought the support of Washington, which says it is neutral on the territorial row but concerned about freedom of navigation the region's critical sea lanes.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)