BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top newspapers warned on Tuesday that the United States' plans to bolster its naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region threaten to widen rifts between the two big powers.
The warnings came in the People's Daily - the main newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party - and Liberation Army Daily - the main paper of the nation's military, and amplified milder comments from the Foreign Ministry on Monday.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday that the Pentagon will reposition its naval forces so that 60 percent of its battleships are in the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the decade, up from about 50 percent now.
Echoing reassurances from other Obama administration officials, Panetta said the plan was not aimed at containing China, whose fast-modernising navy has kindled worries among neighbours. But the People's Daily did not buy that.
"Opinion across the Asia-Pacific generally does not believe that the United States' strategy of returning to the Asia-Pacific is not aimed at China; it's there plain for all to see," said a commentary in the paper, which reflects currents of official thinking in Beijing.
"The United States verbally denies it is containing China's rise, but while establishing a new security array across the Asia-Pacific, it has invariably made China its target," it said.
"This strategy is riven with contradictions and undoubtedly will magnify the complexities of Asia-Pacific security arrangements, and could even create schisms."
The People's Daily commentary was blunter than the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, who responded to Panetta's announcement by saying China hopes the United States will respect its regional interests, and by calling the Pentagon's steps "out of keeping with the times.
Beijing appears keen to avoid outright confrontation with the U.S., but the comments in state newspapers reflected persistent worries among many in China that Washington is bent on frustrating its emergence as a major power.
"After this new (U.S.) military deployment and adjustment is completed, the intensity of U.S. meddling in Asia-Pacific affairs will surely increase," the Liberation Army Daily quoted a People's Liberation Army researcher as saying.
"This trend will increase people's fears about the United States using its military dominance to interfere in the sovereignty of the region's countries," said the researcher, Han Xudong, a professor at China's National Defence University.
China is focused on ensuring stable conditions for a Communist Party leadership transition later this year that will see the appointment of a new president to succeed Hu Jintao.
Still, Beijing and Washington have repeatedly been in dispute over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which China sees as an illegitimate breakaway from its control; and the South China Sea, where China confronts a mosaic of disputes over islands and seas also claimed by southeast Asian nations.
The U.S. has backed a multilateral approach to solving those territorial disputes, which Beijing has rejected as meddling.
The United States' approach to China was riven with contradictions, said the People's Daily commentary.
"Lack of consistency in words and actions is a sign of weakness, lack of confidence and even self-deception," the paper said of U.S. policy.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Daniel Magnowski