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Pentagon told to tone down China rhetoric in latest sign US may seek to diffuse tensions

The White House appears to want to stabilise ties with Beijing in the final months of the Obama ­administration, Chinese analysts said on Thursday, after a weekend report that Pentagon chiefs had been barred from publicly using “great power competition” in reference to military challenges from China.

The analysts said the US National Security Council’s reported gag order was another sign that Washington intended to ease its tension with Beijing over disputes in the South China Sea.

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Citing four sources familiar with a classified directive, the US’ Navy Times, a weekly publication for US naval personnel and their families, reported on Sunday that the NSC ordered Pentagon leaders to strike out the phrase “great power competition” and find something less inflammatory.

The news outlet quoted White House officials as saying the term inaccurately framed the US and China as on a collision course.

But other experts warned that China’s assertiveness in the South and East China seas, including its ship building, artificial islands and expansive claims in the disputed waters, were hostile to US interests, the report said.

The Pentagon did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Su Hao, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said the rhetoric of US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and other US military leaders often gave the impression that “the US and China are in rivalry and opposition”.

“China-US relations seem to have been hijacked by the South China Sea issues, or by the military, which does not fairly describe the comprehensiveness of the bilateral ties,” Su said.

A Sino-US deal on the South China Sea is difficult, but not impossible

“If US President Barack Obama leaves Sino-US relations in chaos [to his successor], that would not be desirable,” Su said. “The White House must carefully consider how to stabilise relations.”

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the NSC directive indicated the White House might be worried that the Pentagon’s dramatic take on Chinese military challenges could backfire on US ties with China.

A Sino-US relations expert with a Chinese official think tank said Beijing and Washington had, in a way, reached an agreement that neither would take a steps to trigger direct conflict over the South China Sea.

For example, he said, the US withdrew its aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, to Hawaii on July 5, one week before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea.

“China also made some compromises … and it is unlikely it will build an artificial island in the Scarborough Shoal, or set up an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea,” he said. “Neither side wants to escalate tension, preferring talks between civilian officials, or a diplomatic way, to solve the problems.”