At first it sounded like a relationship that needed conciliating. Since the cold war it is hard to recall two great-power heavyweights swapping such frank sentiments face-to-face so freely in public. This time China was a protagonist. But the plain speaking was healthy.
The occasion was US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's official visit to Beijing. The tough rhetoric emerged at a joint press conference after talks with his counterparts. Defence Minister Chang Wanquan warned Washington to respect Beijing's core interests as the US shifted its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, adding: "China's development cannot be contained by anyone." On the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, Chang said China's armed forces were "ready to assemble at the first call" and warned the US to "stay vigilant" over Japan.
In another exchange, the deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission, Fan Changlong , told Hagel that Beijing was not happy with his remarks in Japan urging Beijing to respect its neighbours. In reply, Hagel reminded his hosts of Washington's treaty obligation to protect Japan in any dispute with China and denounced Beijing's unilateral declaration of an air defence zone over the East China Sea.
Rather than criticise official visitors, the Chinese usually say such things in a more subtle way through diplomatic jargon. Now that China's rise can cause concerns, such as those raised by Hagel, Beijing has rightly seen the need for a proportionate response. This is a healthy development. Whatever the concerns on either side, they should be put on the table. The plain speaking should be seen in a positive light as a sign of a maturing relationship in which neither side is looking for a fight. Indeed, most important in the cold-war US-Soviet Union relationship were communication protocols to safeguard against accidental conflict. In that regard, the Beijing talks had a positive and concrete result, with an agreement to step up a regular dialogue to minimise the risk of misunderstanding. A day later, President Xi Jinping confirmed the tone with a call to properly manage conflicts and avoid confrontation.
The fact that Hagel was a guest of Beijing at a time of regional tensions and was invited to inspect China's first aircraft carrier is all evidence of an evolving relationship. For the sake of world and regional stability, it is to be hoped the two sides will continue to discuss problems frankly and respectfully.