Keating was making the first public comment on his visit to Beijing earlier this month for talks with Chinese military chiefs.

 

He said that during the visit he had stressed the need for improved communication between the two sides, in order to develop "bonds of trust and understanding" and avoid potential conflicts.

 

The visit followed a row between Washington and Beijing after China put a block on US naval port visits to Hong Kong late last year.

 

One incident in particular – when two US minesweepers seeking shelter from an approaching storm were denied entry to Hong Kong – caused Keating at the time to question whether China understood "its obligations as a responsible nation".

 

China gave no official reason for the block on port visits, although reports in state media have hinted at anger over Washington's decision to grant an award to Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and a decision to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan.

 

But following his visit to Beijing, Keating said he sensed that China "didn't want to be confrontational" over the issue.

 

Keating, left, held talks with Chinese military
chiefs earlier this month [AFP]
Welcoming Monday's arrival of the USS Blue Ridge in Hong Kong, the first US ship to visit since the bar was lifted, Keating said he was relieved the row appeared to have been resolved.

 

"I am not as concerned today as I was before," he said, adding: "We think we are developing a better understanding of them."

 

Nonetheless he said the US found it "troubling" that China's weapons systems capability exceeds levels Beijing itself has defined as necessary for its self-defence.

 

He said the US had intelligence that China "is developing, fielding and has in place weapons that could be characterised as having ... an ability to restrict movement in and around certain areas on the sea, in the air or under the sea".

 

China has reported double-digit increases in defence spending in recent years, but according to US intelligence estimates the real level of spending is much higher than officially stated.

 

China says its annual military spending rose 17.8 per cent last year to $45bn.

 

But officials at the Pentagon believe China's military budget is as high as $125bn a year and growing even faster.

 

In addition a series of recent US defence studies have raised concerns that China's military build-up could blunt any US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan and challenge US naval access to the western Pacific region.

 

'No numbers'

 

Last November the US and China announced plans to set up a military hotline between their two capitals after a visit to Beijing by Robert Gates, the US defence secretary.

 

The hotline is intended to increase transparency between the two sides and reduce the risk of unintentional conflict caused by misunderstandings.

 

But three months later Keating told the Asia Society that no progress on the link had been made.

 

On his visit to Beijing he said he had told Chinese military chiefs that "if something comes up, I'd like to call you and say what are you guys doing".

 

But so far, he said, they "just haven't given us the phone numbers yet".