The US defence chief yesterday offered to host a meeting of Southeast Asian defence ministers in Hawaii next year, and at the same time sought to ease China's doubts over the US' military "pivot" to Asia.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and its Asean neighbours are likely to be one of the key issues on the agenda in Hawaii.
Four of Asean's 10 member states - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - are disputing territory in the South China Sea with China.
Smaller member countries such as Laos and Cambodia have come under increasing Chinese economic and political influence, partly as a result of foreign aid from Beijing.
On Friday, Vietnam's prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, said: "There have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics."
Zhou Fangyin , an expert in global strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the US would also use the Hawaiian meeting to address the Asean countries' doubts over its "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific.
"The Asean countries will be worried about whether the 'pivot' is a temporary strategy, and whether the US will leave in the same way it exited the Middle East," he said.
Hagel held out hope for improving military relations with China while warning on cyberattacks from China.
Taking questions after his speech, Hagel was challenged by a Chinese military delegate over what Washington could do to reassure Beijing that it really wanted a positive relationship when it was focusing so many military resources on the region.
"US officials have on several occasions clarified that the rebalance is not against China," Major General Yao Yunzhu , an expert on Sino-US defence relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science, told Hagel. "However, China is not convinced."
Hagel replied: "How can the US assure China of our intentions? That's really the whole point behind closer military-to-military relationships. We don't want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and the only way you do that is you talk to each other."
British defence minister Philip Hammond said rising defence spending in Asia was "worrying" amid growing tensions over territorial disputes and competition for resources.
"[It] has the potential to become at best a prolonged source for instability and at worst, a driver for conflict," he said.
Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse