BEIJING — A top American military commander said Saturday that the US Army was working to start a formal dialogue and exchange program with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army before the end of the year.
The commander, General Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told reporters at a news conference in Beijing that the program was aimed at expanding cooperation and “managing differences constructively.”
“It really is about us focusing on a long-term relationship and the importance of us conducting exchanges, conducting institutional visits,” he said.
Odierno made his remarks at the US Embassy, during the second day of a visit to China. The general met with Chinese counterparts in Beijing on Friday and was scheduled to travel to visit the Shenyang military command in northeast China later Saturday.
The general said the formal dialogue between US and Chinese army officials would include discussions of humanitarian relief, disaster management, and peacekeeping operations. A date for the first formal meeting in the program has not been set, but the general said some military officials who had come to China with him would remain to work on details. Odierno said he hoped a date would be finalized during an expected visit to China in April by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The general said his visit was focused solely on laying the groundwork for senior-level exchanges between the two armies, and he assumed other branches of the US military would try to build similar programs with their Chinese counterparts.
In recent years, US officials have said that ties between the US and Chinese militaries are weak and far below the level of similar ties between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. This has led to heightened anxieties among US military leaders.
Tensions among nations with a military presence in the Western Pacific are on the rise. The United States is still the dominant military power in the region, and will be for years to come, but China is rapidly building up its armed forces. Chinese officials and those of other Asian nations regularly trade sharp words over territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.
The United States has said it does not take sides in the disputes, but wants to maintain freedom of navigation. More recently, it has insisted that China clarify or adjust its claims in the South China Sea to ensure they are consistent with international law.
US officials have said the territorial claims must be based on land features, an assertion that negates an expansive map often called the “nine dashes” or “cow’s tongue” that the Kuomintang government of China created in the early 20th century to demarcate Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. Some Chinese officials in the Communist-run government continue to use that map to delineate China’s current claims.
Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal opponents of Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Last month, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that a three-ship Chinese flotilla performed an oath-taking ceremony Jan. 26 near Zengmu Reef, a feature at the southernmost tip of the territory bounded by the nine dashes on the Republican-era map.
Malaysia and some other nations call the feature James Shoal, and a Malaysian admiral said that, contrary to the Xinhua report, Chinese ships did not patrol in that area, which falls in what Malaysia calls its exclusive economic zone. US officials have raised concerns over a maritime encounter in December in which a Chinese vessel came within 100 meters of the USS Cowpens, a Navy cruiser, in the South China Sea.