When China's State Council Information Office director Cai Wu agreed to appear at Australia's National Press Club last week, many journalists expected a rare chance to learn why China felt obliged to censor the internet, imprison journalists and muzzle reports on serious health issues. Mr Cai, on the other hand, was expecting a rare opportunity to persuade western journalists of the peaceful intent behind China's increasing economic and military influence - developments which he said had 'caused widespread international concern - the so-called China threat'. A recent Pentagon quadrennial review argued that a Chinese military build-up could be a negative for Asia if it put the regional military balance at risk, and that 'the outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivation and decision-making'. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, put these concerns to the Australian government when she visited last month. 'We've said that we have concerns about the Chinese military build-up,' she said. 'We've told the Chinese that they need to be transparent.' Indeed, a driving purpose behind her Australian visit was to engage in 'triangular dialogue' with America's close allies, Japan and Australia, about this rising Chinese influence. Japan's foreign minister, Taro Aso, has labelled China a 'considerable threat'. Dr Rice argued that: 'All of us in the region, particularly longstanding allies, have a joint obligation to try and produce conditions in which the rise of China will be a positive force in international politics, not a negative one.' Mr Cai said China's rise was a big positive, and that China would 'promote world peace through its own peaceful development', and the chance to feed and clothe its 1.3 billion people. He said it was in China's own interests to achieve a 'peaceful and stable international environment ... Peaceful development is our long-term choice'. Even if Dr Rice said that America periodically told China not to 'threaten with missile batteries that look as if they're aimed at Taiwan', Mr Cai maintained that China's military expenditure was 'largely transparent'. The extra 14.7 per cent in military spending which so concerned Dr Rice would go to bettering the living conditions of People's Liberation Army troops. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has acknowledged that policy towards China is one area in which the Australian government differs from the US. His foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has explicitly denounced a 'China containment' policy. Mr Cai said this was a 'wise' statement, and repeatedly castigated China containment as a grave mistake. Still, the Australian media, and a great many Australians, are increasingly disturbed by their government's reluctance to criticise China - particularly on human-rights issues - and were wary, if not opposed to, its decision to sell uranium to the mainland. Mr Cai gave a powerful defence of Chinese transparency on public-health issues. He was asked whether or not reports last week from Hong Kong newspapers that there was now a second human case of bird flu in Guangzhou were correct, and whether it was true that mainland officials had attempted to prevent this being reported in the official Chinese media. He replied that after the Sars crisis had passed, Chinese government officials reflected on that epidemic, and 'some high-ranking officials in China paid a very high price'. So, when bird flu appeared last year: 'We strictly implemented the information-release measures. We asked officials to release information on bird flu in a very timely manner. 'Why should you block the information when unexpected natural disasters may pose serious threats to Chinese people? 'I think that report [of a second bird-flu case in Guangzhou] may be wrong. If it was truly a bird-flu case, I don't think the local officials could block the information. If that official dares to block the information, he may pay a really high price - an even higher price than the Beijing mayor and health minister [both were sacked] paid for blocking information [on Sars]. He has to pay a price for the mistake and be held legally responsible for blocking such information.' Mr Cai also denied that the central government, or the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, had censored Freezing Point, the special-edition supplement of the China Youth Daily, last year. He said the newspaper itself decided to suspend the special edition, after it published an article from a history professor 'which aroused strong anger among the Chinese people. It contained an outrageous position' - a new interpretation of the Boxer Rebellion. He said it would 'be quite natural for a journalist who published an article in total conflict with the editorial position of a newspaper to be fired'. Mr Cai said that it was the responsibility of the State Council Office to correct misunderstandings in the foreign media, such as those about Freezing Point. He also acknowledged that great Chinese economic transitions from a 'planned agricultural economy' to a 'post-industrial society' could mean change for mainland media. 'Chinese media have a responsibility to enhance information exchange with foreign counterparts,' Mr Cai said. 'Chinese society and Chinese government have to adapt themselves to change.' By way of example, he mentioned the nearly 100,000 Chinese students in Australia, who see a robust democracy at work. Mr Cai seemed more open to dialogue than many older Chinese cadres. 'I never regard myself as an administrator of the media - rather a friend of the media - on an equal footing.' He said that misunderstandings had arisen from a lack of a two-way information flow. Whether these were genuine intimations of reform and a more open society, or carefully crafted spin, remains to be seen. The burgeoning numbers of international exchanges and visits - not least President Hu Jintao's trip to the US this week - which he proudly documents, could be genuine peaceful overtures, or perhaps a clever diplomatic strategy to drive a wedge between countries such as Australia and the US. Perhaps both. Mr Cai's Australian visit followed directly on Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Australia, which The Beijing News said helped 'to weaken the 'contain China' alliance'. Why else would Mr Cai have commented that 'Close neighbours are more important than faraway relatives'?