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WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Pacific Command said Thursday he’s frustrated by China’s inconsistent stance towardimproving relations with the U.S., calling them irresponsible in some encounters and a valuable partner in others.

"This all goes to the root issue of what their intentions are, where China expects to be in 10, 20, 50 years," Adm. Timothy Keating said. "I think the U.S. does have a prominent role with them in that … but it’s confusing to us."

At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Keating said he has been hopeful that communication between the two countries’ militaries might improve based on recent positive meetings with Chinese officials.

In anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, he noted, Chinese ships freely exchange messages with U.S. task force officials overseeing the operations. Chinese officials attended and observed the recent Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand, an invitation U.S. officials were happily surprised they accepted.

But he called the confrontation between the USNS Impeccable and Chinese ships earlier this month an "unlawful and dangerous" incident that raises concerns about that country’s long-term military ambitions.

The Impeccable, a Military Sealift Command contract ship carrying a civilian crew, on March 10 was conducting underwater listening 75 miles south of Hainan Island when five Chinese vessels, including a Chinese Navy intelligence ship, surrounded it in an attempt to disrupt operations. Pentagon officials said it was the fourth such incident in a week for the American crew.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates downplayed the issue, saying he does not see a need to send armed escorts into the region.

"I don’t think that they’re trying to push the Seventh Fleet out of that area," he told reporters. "I hope the diplomatic exchanges that have taken place since the aggressive acts against the Impeccable will mean that there won’t be a repetition of this."

Keating said he thinks the incident could have been avoided with better communication and interaction between the two militaries — things like port calls, officer exchanges and formal talks on maritime issues.

But China scaled back those types of interactions last year, Keating said, and have ignored his requests for a direct hotline between his office and top military officials.

"For us to realize productivity with them, we have to engage in discussion, and right now we’re not doing that because they have suspended military-to-military relations," he said.

Lawmakers echoed that concern.

Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the incident "appears to be less about military might and more about a disagreement over claims of sovereignty and freedom of navigation." But he added such incidents can easily escalate, and called on Chinese officials to improve communication.

Keating called the U.S. ship’s actions legal and open, but labeled the Chinese actions as "against responsible maritime behavior."

Stars and Stripes’ Kevin Baron contributed to this story.

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