Since the United States' strategic military refocus on Asia was announced last year, the Obama administration has been careful to point out the so-called pivot to the Pacific is not aimed at containing China.
But the reassurances by U.S. officials have failed to convince many in the Asian nation. While China's official reaction to the pivot has been restrained, the country's state-controlled media regularly publish editorials insisting Washington is not being truthful about its real intentions.
Some observers say President Barack Obama may have revealed his true feelings on the pivot at a presidential debate Monday with his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. During an extended segment dedicated to "The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World," Obama took the unusual step of referring to China as an adversary.
"China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it is following the rules," said President Obama. Some observers viewed the comment as unusually harsh language coming from a president who has overseen a policy of diplomatic engagement with China since coming to office four years ago.
Security analyst Gregory Kulacki, a China Project manager at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, tells VOA he thinks Obama's comments offered a subtle insight into the nature of the complicated U.S.-China security relationship.
"There is no way of knowing. But I do think it is interesting that he chose to use the word 'adversary' in combination with the word 'partner.' 'Adversary' is a term used in a military or security context," says Kulacki. "And he used the word 'potential partner,' which shows that he really doesn't think that China is a partner now."
Kulacki says the comments may help clarify what has been a "very unclear policy."
"The administration has a mix of phrases it uses to talk about the pivot. It talks about freedom of navigation in East Asia, [about] maintaining the rule of law. But what I think the president revealed this evening is that he really does view China as an adversary, which makes the pivot more of a containment policy than I think the president has been willing to admit at this point," he says.
Bill Bishop, a China analyst who writes the influential Sinocism newsletter, warns against reading too much into the language used during a political debate. But he tells VOA that U.S. diplomats have in the past refrained from publicly using words like "adversary" when referencing China.
"[Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton has specifically not used that language. She's been asked if she views China as an adversary, and she's dodged the question, being the diplomat that she is. I certainly don't think it's something the president or the secretary of state has said publicly," says Bishop.
"I would guess that it's probably language that is used internally and that he's just in the middle of the debate," he adds. "I don't think he was necessarily using the debate to signal anything to Beijing. I think it was more a bit of an unguarded moment where he's actually saying what he really thinks as opposed to couching the normal discourse in more diplomatic [language]."
Others say Obama's choice of phrasing had political reasons. Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, told VOA that Mitt Romney's more aggressive stance on China has forced the president to use more assertive language.
"To me, saying that China is an adversary is playing to the gallery in the U.S.," says Brown. "I presume it will be interpreted in China as that. It won't be seen as something meaningful in policy terms."
Beijing's foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei did not respond to the specific mention of the word "adversary" during a regular press briefing Tuesday. But he says a healthy U.S.-China relationship is in the interest of both countries, and both U.S. political parties should regard China's development "with a responsible attitude."