By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Thursday played down remarks by a senior Navy intelligence officer who told a public forum that he believed China was training its forces to be capable of carrying out a "short, sharp" war with Japan in the East China Sea.
The comments by Captain James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, were little noticed when he made them last week at a conference on maritime strategy called "West 2014" in San Diego. They can be seen here: http://link.reuters.com/qyq96v
Fanell also predicted China, which declared an air defense zone last year in the East China Sea where it is locked in a territorial dispute with Japan over a string of small islands, would declare another air defense zone by the end of 2015, this time in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon's top spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, declined to comment on whether it was appropriate for Fanell to publicly offer such a blunt assessment, but said the Pentagon wanted closer ties with China's military.
"Those were his views to express," Kirby told a Pentagon news conference.
"What I can tell you about what Secretary Hagel believes is that we all continue to believe that the peaceful, prosperous rise of China is a good thing for the region, for the world," he said, referring to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Asked whether the Pentagon shared Fanell's assessments, Kirby said it would be inappropriate for him to speak to the intentions or motivations of another country's military.
"It's for China to speak to China's intentions and motivations and their relations with their neighbors. And nothing's changed about our view here," Kirby said.
Ties between China and U.S. ally Japan have worsened due in part to mistrust over China's military buildup and their territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
The U.S. military has refused to recognize the air defense zone China declared last year. Some U.S. officials have warned that any declaration by Beijing of another such zone in the South China Sea could result in changes to U.S. military deployments in the region.
Asked whether Fanell's comments could be a "trial balloon" signaling a possible toughening of the U.S. military posture in the region, Kirby said: "I would refute that absolutely, not a trial balloon."
Fanell, addressing the San Diego forum, said he expected China to declare an air defense zone in the South China Sea in 2014 or 2015.
Fanell said China was expanding training for its navy beyond the "long-standing task to restore Taiwan to the mainland."
"We witnessed the massive amphibious and cross military region exercise, Mission Action 2013, and concluded that the PLA (People's Liberation Army) has been given a new task: To be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea," he said.
He added that such a war could be expected to be followed by a seizure of the islands at the heart of China's territorial dispute with Japan. The islands are known as the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)