Hagel and China’s Defense Chief get down to Talks at the Pentagon

Mike O'Brien

Against a backdrop of tensions over U.S. missile defenses, Chuck Hagel sat face to face with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Chang Wanquan on Monday in the first of a series of talks at the Pentagon.

Aside from the public expressions of goodwill and pledges of cooperation, there’s plenty of meat on the agenda.

Among the hefty topics to be discussed are the U.S. military’s pivot to Asia, the scourge of cyber attacks and China’s territorial disputes with several other Asia nations.

China is currently locked in disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam over boundaries and resources in the South China Sea.

Speaking at an Asian security conference in Singapore earlier this summer, Mr. Hagel said: "While the U.S. and China will have our differences -- on human rights, Syria and regional security issues in Asia -- the key is for these differences to be addressed on the basis of a continuous and respectful dialogue. It also requires building trust and reducing the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries."

Defense officials are keen to play up the positive signs. There is new U.S.-China naval cooperation in anti-piracy exercises, plus there’s China's acceptance of a U.S. invitation to participate in next year's Rim of the Pacific military exercise, the region's largest naval exercise.

Mr. Hagel has also accepted China's invitation to visit Beijing next year.

The talks follow President Obama’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in June. Mr. Obama produced specific evidence of intellectual property theft the U.S. says is emanating from China.

In response, Mr. Xi said China was also a victim of cyber attacks and did not publicly acknowledge his own country's alleged activities.

The summit ended with no accord on cyber security, but officials said the tone was mostly upbeat.

Another source of tension is China's role in the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden affair.

During top-level U.S.-China talks in Washington in July, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said the U.S. was very disappointed that Beijing refused to extradite Snowden before he flew to Russia.