China's top general sought to allay U.S. concerns Monday about his country's military buildup, but defended a decision late last year to deny Hong Kong port calls by an American aircraft carrier and other navy ships.
Gen. Chen Bingde, in charge of day-to-day operations for the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army, offered no new explanations as to why Beijing turned away the U.S. ships, a move that sparked consternation at the Pentagon.
"The distance between China and U.S. militaries is big. ... We don't have the ability to make you afraid of us," Chen, chief of the general staff, said at the beginning of talks at the Defense Ministry with Adm. Timothy Keating, the top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region.
Keating, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, was making his first trip to China since Beijing turned away the USS Kitty Hawk and five ships accompanying it for a Hong Kong port call in November. The same week, two U.S. Navy minesweepers also were turned away after seeking shelter during a storm.
"China is a country with its own territory. If your ship wants to stop by in Hong Kong you have to follow the international rules and go through some procedures," Chen told Keating.
He did not say whether the ships had failed to follow proper procedures, but said they were welcome to make port calls in the future.
China hinted at the time that its actions were triggered by the U.S. Congress' honoring of the Dalai Lama and U.S. arms sales to China's rival Taiwan. China views the Dalai Lama — a spiritual leader to Tibetans _ as being intent on separating Tibet from China. Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan a breakaway province that it hopes to reclaim.
Keating's Hawaii-based Pacific Command oversees a vital strategic area for the U.S., including busy trade routes that feed China's booming economy and the potentially unstable Taiwan Strait, a 100-mile-wide body of water that divides Taiwan from the mainland.
U.S. politicians and military leaders have voiced worries about China's rapidly rising military spending and the country's secretiveness about its military aims. Beijing has overseen double-digit percentage growth in its military spending annually for the past decade.
Keating was scheduled to go to Shanghai on Tuesday and then southern Guangdong province to visit a military base there.