U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's visit to China this week highlighted a rapidly expanding effort between the two nations' militaries to boost ties, despite growing regional disputes. The trip also laid bare some of their sharp differences.
Hagel's first visit to China was not short on friendly exchanges, including a visit to the country's only aircraft carrier and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But, although the two sides talked cooperation, they also openly disagreed over territorial disputes in the region.
The Pentagon chief bluntly challenged Beijing's decision late last year to declare an air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan.
"Every nation has a right to establish an air defense zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation. That adds to tensions, misunderstandings, and could eventually add to, and eventually get to dangerous conflict," said Hagel.
Chinese defense minister, General Chang Wanquan, responded in kind, noting territorial issues are a core interest for China.
"On this issue we will make no compromise, no concession, no trading, not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed," said Chang.
At China’s National Defense University, Hagel spoke with officers about the need for transparency as a way to avoid misunderstandings.
Taking questions later, one officer voiced concerns that Washington is taking sides in the region to stir up tensions and block Beijing's military rise.
Washington denies it is trying to contain China. But the Brookings Institution's Jonathan Pollack says the United States has adopted a somewhat harder line in how it addresses these issues in the region.
"You're getting a consistent message from [U.S. officials], on the one hand, an effort to try to define, improve prospects for a meaningful relationship between the armed forces of the two countries’ expanding cooperation in particular areas, but at the same time reinforcing areas where the Chinese say they will not budge, and we reiterate our existing commitments," Pollack said.
Analysts say relations have made significant strides over the past year or so. This is the third time that Hagel and his Chinese counterpart have met since they both took office. The two militaries have held several joint exercises since last year.