WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Pacific commander voiced concern Wednesday over China's intentions as the Asian power announced its latest double-digit hike in defense spending.
Several lawmakers questioned Adm. Samuel Locklear about U.S. ability to contend with a rising China and sustain a "pivot" to Asia amid growing pressure on the U.S. defense budget.
China announced Wednesday a 12.2 percent increase in military spending to $132 billion — likely a considerable underestimate of actual spending, but still far less than the $600.4 billion the U.S. spent last year.
Locklear noted China's spending increase, and added that the 12.2 percent rise is "just what we can see."
He told the House Armed Services Committee that there has been a slow and steady growth in the U.S.-China military relationship, and that the U.S. wants China to provide a positive contribution to regional security. But he said China's recent activities were calling into question how it will proceed.
"What's frustrating is what's happening in their own backyard as it relates to their relations with some of our allies," Locklear said, citing China's "ambiguous" territorial claims in the South China Sea and its declaration of an air defense information zone over the East China Sea, in an encompassing airspace above Japanese-controlled islands also claimed by China. "This all complicates the security environment and makes us wonder," Locklear said.
"Whether the (Chinese) military will rise, I think that's a given. It will. The question is: is it transparent, what is it used for, is it cooperating in the larger security environment with neighbors?" he said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also told reporters that the U.S. was urging greater transparency from China, and encouraging it to use its military capabilities for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
House and Senate committees on Wednesday were quizzing U.S. military commanders about budget requests for 2015, against the backdrop of tensions between China and its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia, and the Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
The Obama administration is looking to develop a smaller, more modern military force, but some in Congress worry that could weaken U.S. capabilities in a period of growing uncertainty in Europe and Asia.
Republican Sen. John McCain took aim at the administration for presenting a budget "that constrains us in a way which is unprecedented since previous times." He cited remarks reportedly made by a senior defense official Tuesday that budget cuts mean the "pivot" can't happen — comments the administration quickly rolled back.
While Locklear acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining the naval presence the U.S. needs, he predicted China would not be able to threaten American global military pre-eminence for a long time. He said he was most concerned by China's introduction of military capabilities apparently aimed at thwarting the U.S. ability to defend its allies in the region.