By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday it faced an increasingly "volatile" Asian region where the United States has expanded its strategic footprint, maintaining that better military ties between Beijing and Washington rested on respect for each other's interests.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) spelled out its concerns about U.S. intentions in a policy paper setting out broad priorities for Beijing's growing military forces.
The "white paper" said that while China wants to avoid military confrontation and focus on growing its economy, it sees potential security challenges across the region, many of them bound up with Washington's web of alliances and military forces across Asia, including on the tense Korean peninsula.
"Profound changes are taking shape in the Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. Relevant major powers are increasing their strategic investment," said China's defense white paper for 2010 which, despite its date, was released only on Thursday.
"The United States is reinforcing its regional military alliances and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs," it said. "Suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase."
U.S. weapons sales continue to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as an illegitimate breakaway province, hampering the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, the paper added.
It also singled out the Korean peninsula and Afghanistan as sources of worry.
"Asia-Pacific security is becoming more intricate and volatile," the paper said. "International military competition remains fierce."
Last year, Beijing and Washington wrangled over North Korea, a long-time ally of China, which ignited regional alarm by torpedoing a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors, and later shelling a South Korean island, killing four people.
North Korea denied downing the ship, and China refused to join other countries in condemning Pyongyang over that or the November shelling of the island. Instead, Beijing chided the United States for holding joint military exercises with South Korea in seas across from China's coast.
A PLA officer, Geng Yansheng, said Beijing nonetheless wants better military ties with Washington, and that a senior Chinese commander, the PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde, would visit the United States in May, following on from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing in January.
Gates' visit and then a Washington summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao marked an easing of tensions between the two big powers after a string of disputes in 2010, including Chinese anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Still, Senior Colonel Geng, a spokesman for China's Defense Ministry, indicated China's concerns about Taiwan and other issues it calls "core" strategic interests have not eased altogether.
"There remain some difficulties and challenges in China-U.S. military relations," he said, adding that defusing them required, "in particular, respecting each other's core interests and major security concerns."
Geng said China had been working hard to reduce military tensions with Taiwan, though the island still claims China is aiming missiles at it despite a substantial warming in ties over the past few years.
"At an appropriate time, both sides can have contacts and exchanges on military issues and look at setting up a cross-Strait military security mechanism," he added. China has made similar offers before, though nothing has come of it.
China says its defense white papers are intended to ease concerns abroad about where the country's military modernization is headed. The last such document was released in 2009.
But neither the paper nor the accompanying news conference shed much light on what China intends to do with its growing military budget. Geng did not directly answer questions about whether the PLA Navy intends to launch the country's first aircraft carrier as a stepping stone to a bigger ocean presence.
Chinese military and political sources say Beijing could launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, a year earlier than U.S. military analysts had expected.
Earlier this month, China unveiled a 12.7 percent rise in its 2011 defense budget, in a return to double-digit spending increases that have stirred regional unease.
The 2011 defense budget is 601.1 billion yuan, up from 532.1 billion yuan last year. The budget went up by just 7.5 percent in 2010, after a long period of double-digit hikes.
Many experts believe China's actual spending on the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) is far higher than what the government reports.
China, now the world's second-largest economy, often points out that its defense spending pales in comparison with the United States and that its military upgrades are for defensive purposes.
The Pentagon in February rolled out a record base budget for fiscal year 2012 of $553 billion, up $22 billion from the level enacted for 2010.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang, Chris Buckley and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)