WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday he will visit China next year to capitalize on an improving trend in US-China relations, even as Beijing casts a wary eye on the Pentagon’s strategic ‘‘pivot’’ to Asia and the Pacific.
During a break in meetings at the Pentagon, Hagel and his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, told reporters they see room for greater US-China military cooperation, including joint exercises and high-level visits.
Chang affirmed that China’s navy next year will participate for the first time in a major international maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific.
Hagel said he accepted Chang’s invitation to visit Beijing in 2014.
Chang and Hagel both spoke hopefully of building greater trust between the two nations’ militaries and chipping away at long-held suspicions. But Chang cautioned against mistaking his country’s friendliness for weakness.
‘‘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,’’ Chang said through an interpreter.
He appeared to be referring to China’s disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other Asian nations over territorial boundaries in the South China Sea.
Hagel alluded to these tensions, saying in a statement that while the United States does not take sides in territorial claims, it encourages all parties to avoid allowing tensions to escalate into armed conflict.