While touting improved relations with China and calling for more of the same, U.S. Defense Department officials are also pushing for peaceful resolutions of regional territorial disputes — a hot-button topic for the Asian giant and its neighbors.

The territorial issues are becoming even more sensitive for U.S. relations in the area as the Pentagon refocuses its forces into the region as part of its Asia-Pacific “pivot.”

Building a strong relationship with India and China is key for the U.S. regional strategy, says Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, now handling the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy.

“As rising powers, they have a special role to play in the future security order,” he told the House Armed Services Committee Jan. 29.

“We have made progress in cooperative capacity building in areas such as military medicine, counterpiracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he says.

“As I look globally at China, I think there are some positive aspects of how they’re using their military forces in a productive way,” says Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. “They participated in Operation Damayan in the Philippines. They provided disaster relief. They’re operating, I think, more frequently in multilateral exercises that are being done throughout the region, and as we’ve talked about, they’re planning to come to Rimpac (Pacific Rim exercises). As you go into the Gulf of Aden, they’re operating farther away from home and participating in the security of those particular regions.”

Speaking Jan. 23 at a Pentagon briefing, he said, “Our bilateral relationship — I would give it a passing grade for the last year. And I would say that because we have been able to continue our mil-to-mil (military-to-military) relationships, our exercises together, even though there has been churn in the region, particularly in the local region that’s close to China.”

Still, the territorial disputes require some careful navigation. “In regard to their activities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, it’s yet to be determined ... how that will play out. Ultimately, China needs to be a regional leader. Their military needs to be a regional leader. It needs to coexist in that part of the world with our allies and with our militaries, and we need to work together for the mutual security.”

Of particular concern is the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) recently established by China.

“Have we talked to the Chinese about the ADIZ? Yes. Did we know about it before they established it? We were not directly notified. The fact that they established an ADIZ is of less concern to me than the way that it was done. It would have been better if it had been announced and had been discussed with the neighbors and with the partners in the region. And it had some caveats inside of the way they established that we fundamentally don’t agree with and will not acknowledge.”