Memories of the US conflict with another Asian power remain fresh at Pearl Harbor [GALLO/GETTY]

The gentle breeze in the palm trees and the long sandy beaches do not give the impression of an island fortress on high alert.

But the Hawaiian Islands are home to more military personnel and hardware than any other state in the Union, and most of it is pointing towards Asia.

Eye on China

This is the headquarters of Pacific Command (Pacom), the combined authority that manages the US army, navy and air force deployed in the Asia Pacific, and for many years their major perceived threat in the region, and possibly the world, has been the rising superpower China.

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It might then, be considered rather strange to see a ranking general of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) striding up to a firing range at Schofield barracks, flanked by some of Pacom's most senior military officials.

Major-General Zhong Zhiming was leading a delegation of Chinese military officers on one of the first of many planned high-level exchanges, part of a new effort to break down barriers between these two military giants.

"The frequent exchanges between the US and Chinese military are good for our future development and I think they'll happen more and more and the relationship will get better," Zhong told me, showing an openness which one rarely sees from PLA officers.

On the US side, Chief Master Sergeant James A Roy was also keen to stress that informal discussions had helped to break down suspicions on both sides.

"We're interested in what their intentions are, and obviously as China, we want them to partake in the peace and stability across the Asia Pacific region," Roy said.

Dealings between these two powerful nations are rarely simple, however, and just three days after the visit, the Chinese government announced similar exchanges had been cancelled for the foreseeable future in protest at the US government's sale of more than $5bn worth of missiles and attack helicopters to Taiwan.

And the complaints are not just coming from one side.

Every year, the Pentagon complains that Chinese military expenditure is rising at dangerous rates, that there is a lack of transparency in the development of the Chinese military and that China's expansion into space escalates tensions not seen since the Cold War.

There are also concerns that China's aggressive pursuit of energy resources in Africa and other areas well beyond Asia, could create areas of conflict with the Unites States.

Military hardware

It is clear the threat is not taken lightly, perhaps illustrated by the fact that Hickham airbase will be one of the first to receive a squadron of F22 fighters, at an estimated cost of $360m per aircraft.

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The base, however, is also home to the giant C17 cargo planes, which flew relief missions into China during the Sichuan earthquake earlier this year, a sign that the relationship is on the right track, says Lieutenant-Colonel Ed Thomas of the US air force.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Thomas. "Clearly our job as uniformed services, as our nation's military, is to protect our national security interests against any threats, anywhere in the world and it's our job to be prepared. Clearly we want to be able to deal from a position of strength."

The United States is unlikely to let that position slip, despite all the friendly rhetoric.

In Hawaii, memories of another era, when the US faced a dominant Asian power - Japan - are fresh.

The memorial to the USS Arizona sits on the edge of Pearl Harbor, on top of the battleship that was sunk by the Japanese with the loss of 1,177 lives.

With China's growing economic might comes an inevitable growth of its military power, and the resources that it wants to protect.

Denny Roy, of Hawaii's US government-funded East-West Centre, said "both countries are positioning each other for the possibility of some kind of military conflict in the future".

"For sure, both see each other as perhaps the most dangerous adversary on the radar screen."

Source: Al Jazeera