When US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visited China last week, he was given an unprecedented tour of the Liaoning aircraft carrier in a gesture of friendliness - but also received a blunt public warning over America's military presence in Asia.
The handling of Hagel's visit to Qingdao and Beijing illustrated China's shift in tactics in dealing with the world's most powerful military after years of trying to find a response to the US "pivot" to Asia.
By adopting a more hardline tone, the People's Liberation Army shows it is no longer content to allow Washington to set the tone of their military relationship, observers say.
Fan Changlong , deputy chairman of China's Central Military Commission, told Hagel that China was "dissatisfied" with his calls for Beijing to respect its neighbours.
Defence minister Chang Wanquan told Hagel that China's development "cannot be contained" by anyone. He warned the United States to "stay vigilant" over Japan, while Hagel said Washington had a treaty obligation to protect Japan in any row with China.
The exchanges show that the US and China are more willing to acknowledge they face potential conflict, as each seeks dominance in the Asia-Pacific.
"The two sides are more candid with each other," said Dr Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute under the US Naval War College. "I think it is good, and in a way, more useful than just papering over differences."
Chinese officials have been calling on the US to respect Beijing's core interests, but have rarely delivered tough rhetoric in public meetings with American officials. Traditionally, China has sought to strike a modest line and emphasise consensus-building.
Dr Wang Fan , a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, said China was positioning itself as an "equal power" with the US.
"Now, China wants to … set the direction and tone for the military relationship," he said, adding that China wanted stable bilateral ties, but would speak up if its core interests were not being respected, referring to the US' support for nations involved in territorial disputes with Beijing.
The PLA has moved to increase transparency recently. Goldstein pointed to the PLA's participation in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise hosted by the US, and Beijing's notification to the US and other Asian nations that it had deployed a nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean last year.
"What it suggests is China recognises that as it develops its military, it does not want to trigger security concerns of other powers," Goldstein said.
But observers said mutual distrust would hinder major communication efforts. Beijing's disagreement over US surveillance activities in waters around China, and Washington's demand that Beijing improve transparency over its military budget, will continue to divide the two nations.
"There is still a very long way to go for them to establish a full-fledged relationship," Wang said.
Goldstein urged military education institutions to step up exchanges. "If you are going to have a new type of great power relationship, you need to have a very broad effort," he said.