US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, in his first Pentagon meeting with his Chinese counterpart, faces a familiar agenda marked with tensions over US missile defences, Chinese cyberattacks and other issues.
But if the talks follow form, they will be wrapped in public expressions of goodwill and pledges of cooperation.
General Chang Wanquan, the Chinese defence chief, is at the Pentagon for a series of meetings with Hagel.
Hagel is presiding over a Pentagon making a deliberate pivot to Asia after more than a decade of wars in the greater Middle East, and improving ties with China is at the heart of the Obama administration’s Asia strategy.
“While the US and China will have our differences – on human rights, Syria, and regional security issues in Asia – the key is for these differences to be addressed on the basis of a continuous and respectful dialogue. It also requires building trust and reducing the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries,” Hagel said in a speech at an Asian security conference in Singapore on June 1.
Among the positive signs cited by US officials are US-China naval cooperation in anti-piracy exercises and China’s acceptance of a US invitation to participate next year’s Rim of the Pacific military exercise, the region’s largest naval exercise. Hagel has accepted China’s invitation to visit Beijing next year.
Defence officials attribute the current upswing in US-China military relations in part to the US and Chinese presidents’ summit in California in June, which was an attempt to set a positive tone despite Washington’s growing anxiety about Chinese cybertheft. Chinese officials have dubbed the summit a new starting point for relations.
But there was no accord on cybersecurity during that summit. Obama confronted Xi Jinping with specific evidence of intellectual property theft the US says is emanating from China. Xi said China was also a victim of cyberattacks but did not publicly acknowledge his own country’s alleged activities.
The topic is likely to be high on the agenda for Monday’s Pentagon meetings.
Chang spent Friday in Hawaii for talks at US Pacific Command and was at US Northern Command in Colorado over the weekend.
A Northern Command spokesman, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, said the visit was a chance for Chang and General Chuck Jacoby, the commander of Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Command, “to share views on how the military provides support to civil authorities during man-made or natural disasters.”
Also of US concern are disputes between China and several other Asia nations, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, over South China Sea territorial boundaries and resources.
Another source of tension is China’s handling of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. During high-level US-China talks in Washington in July, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said the US was very disappointed that Beijing and semi-autonomous Hong Kong refused to extradite Snowden before he flew to Russia.