By NATHAN HODGEWASHINGTON—China's top military officer warned that America's tendency to "hype" the threat from Beijing could thwart better U.S.-China military relations.
In a speech Wednesday at National Defense University in Washington, Gen. Chen Bingde, the People's Liberation Army chief of general staff, said China's economic rise and recent military-modernization efforts had "unfortunately aroused unfounded suspicion and exaggeration of China's defense and military development."
Overstating the threat posed by China's military, he said, "not only distorts China's strategic intention, and tarnishes our international image, but also pollutes the political environment for Sino-U.S. [military-to-military] relations."
Gen. Chen is leading a Chinese military delegation to the U.S. this week, a visit the Pentagon is billing as an important trust-building exercise.
But the visit by China's top military brass comes amid concern within some U.S. national-security circles about Beijing's growing military prowess.
Asked about Gen. Chen's criticism, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the talks this week are about both countries "making adjustments" and are vital to prevent miscalculations. "We have talked about a peaceful future…that does not include a conflict between China and the United States," Adm. Mullen said.
Earlier this year, for instance, the Chinese military conducted a test flight of its new J-20 stealth plane, a move that sparked concern about potential for a new arms race in the Pacific.
American officials said the test flight, which happened during a visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was meant to telegraph China's growing military confidence.
In addition to the debut of the stealth fighter, China has made strides in developing a carrier-killing ballistic missile that—in theory—could put U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific at greater risk. Other China watchers have expressed concern about China's ability to wage "asymmetric" warfare through cyberattacks, antisatellite weapons or other means.
In a news conference with Adm. Mullen, Gen. Chen was asked about the J-20 test and whether it was a provocative act aimed at the U.S. Gen. Chen said the test flight was routine, adding that China didn't have the capability to threaten the U.S.
"We do not want to use our money to buy equipment or advanced weapons to challenge the United States," he said.
In his speech, he said his visit to the U.S. underscored the "gaping gap" between Chinese and American military capabilities.
In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Gen. Chen said the gap was particularly visible with regards to China's naval fleet. "To be honest, I feel very sad after visiting, because I feel and I know how poor our equipment [is] and how underdeveloped we remain," he said.
Both countries' militaries have gone through periods of suspicion and mistrust of the other. Gen. Chen's visit comes a decade after a midair collision between a Chinese fighter plane and a U.S. surveillance plane over the South China Sea, an incident that sparked a diplomatic row.
U.S.-China military relations hit a low last year after Washington approved a $6 billion arms-sale package to Taiwan. American support for Taiwan has been a perpetual irritant in relations between Beijing and Washington.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Beijing's goal was to develop "anti-access" military capabilities that would limit the U.S. military's ability to project power in the region.
Mr. Coffman recently visited China as part of a U.S.-China Working Group delegation, a visit that included a dinner with Gen. Chen. Mr. Coffman said Chinese military officials "didn't seem very interested" in pushing for a genuinely closer military-to-military relationship.
Gen. Chen's meeting Tuesday with his counterpart, Adm. Mullen, was the first such face-to-face meeting in the U.S. between the top uniformed U.S. and Chinese officials in seven years. The Chinese delegation also was scheduled to meet with senior Obama administration officials and members of Congress.
The Chinese delegation was scheduled to tour several U.S. military installations, including stops at Fort Irwin, Calif., site of the Army's premier desert training center, and a major naval base in Norfolk, Va.
—Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.