WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that he would go to China next year as part of an effort to forge closer ties between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
The former U.S. senator from Nebraska broke the news during a joint press briefing Monday with China's defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan.
Both leaders, in prepared remarks, touted the progress made during meetings at the Pentagon, including agreements for visits by top military officials of both countries and additional joint military exercises.
They said increased military-to-military cooperation would help avoid tensions in the region and make it easier to tackle shared challenges.
But their remarks bore an undercurrent of the tensions surrounding the shift of U.S. military focus to the Asia-Pacific region and cyberattacks that have come from within China.
U.S. officials, including Hagel, have been increasingly blunt about pointing the finger at China when it comes to cyberattacks.
For example, at an Asia-Pacific security conference earlier this summer, Hagel referred to “the growing threat of cyberintrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military.”
In response to an American reporter's question Monday, Chang insisted that China opposes such cyberattacks and that the Chinese military is not involved with them.
“Regarding how to solve the cybersecurity issue, I believe it requires the common exploration and cooperation between China and the United States rather than ungrounded accusation or suspicion,” Chang said through an interpreter.
Hagel spent little time dwelling on the cyberattack issue Monday, pointing to a joint working group as the appropriate forum for hashing out those concerns. Instead, both men highlighted areas where the two militaries are building stronger connections.
One example: The United States for the first time has invited the Chinese navy to join RIMPAC, the country's largest multinational naval exercise.
In addition, Chinese midshipmen have joined a multinational exchange program at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., Hagel said.
Still, it's clear that even as they work on fostering more trust, China remains wary of the United States' so-called pivot toward the Pacific, a shift in strategy that involves moving more military assets into that part of the world and bolstering alliances with other countries in the region.
China is in various maritime sovereignty disputes with other countries in the East China and South China Seas.
Chang said the situation in the region has been complicated by increased U.S. military exercises there.
Hagel nodded to the territorial disputes in his remarks, reiterating that the United States takes no position on the merits of any sovereignty claims but urges that the disputes be resolved peacefully.
As the press conference was winding down, Chang stressed that no one should take all of the happy talk about increased cooperation as a sign that China is going soft.
“China always is a staunch defender of the peace and stability in Asia-Pacific. We always insist that related disputes be solved through dialogue and negotiation,” he said. “However, no one should fantasize that China would barter away our core interests and no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights.”