Chuck Hagel's first visit to China as US defence secretary will focus on reducing the risk of military miscalculations and misjudgments between Beijing and Washington in the South China Sea, analysts say.
Hagel's trip was decided after a dangerous stand-off between the USS Cowpens and a People's Liberation Army Navy vessel in the South China Sea on December 5, which almost triggered a collision, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.
"Hagel will be the top American defence official to pay a visit to Beijing since the latest military encounter between Chinese and US navies in the South China Sea," Shi said.
"The top-level military exchanges between China and the US will help both sides to come up with practical measures that could prevent any similar crisis from happening in the future."
The naval stand-off has been called the worst since the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, in which several Chinese vessels "harassed" the US submarine hunter in China's exclusive economic zone.
In a trip to Beijing last month, US army chief of staff General Ray Odierno said the Pentagon was keen on establishing regular high-level dialogue with the PLA to promote better understanding and avoid possible conflicts. He said details would be finalised during Hagel's visit.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Thursday that Hagel would travel to the Asia-Pacific region next week to convene a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' defence ministers in Hawaii. After that he would stop in Japan before visiting China, he added.
Professor Ni Lexiong , director of a defence policy research centre at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Hagel would also try to act as a middleman to ease tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Relations have deteriorated since November, when Beijing announced it was establishing its first air defence identification zone in the area to including the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.
"The Pentagon is worried about armed conflicts between China and Japan over the Diaoyus dispute, which will push Washington to take a stance because of its relationship as an ally of Tokyo," Ni said.
Shi said the US would reveal its bottom line on the Diaoyus to both Beijing and Tokyo in an attempt to convince the two sides to keep calm.
"The US has come up with countermeasures to deal with any possible crisis in the East and South China seas, with Hagel's Beijing trip aiming at sending part of its message to Beijing and Tokyo," he said.