BEIJING - US envoy to Beijing Gary Locke on Saturday tried to ease China’s fears that Washington wants to hem it in by emphasising American military presence in Asia was not targeted at a single country.

“We strongly believe - and I believe most in the region would agree - that our security presence here is beneficial to the countries of the region and necessary for the continued vitality of the Asia-Pacific,” Locke said.

“Our security presence is not aimed at any one country,” he said in a speech at Peking University, noting that the United States was also boosting its diplomatic and economic engagement in the region.

Locke’s remarks came days ahead of a planned visit to Beijing by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the two countries’ sometimes tense economic and security relationship.

Chinese state media have accused Washington of trying to contain China by befriending regional countries - a view that has been reinforced by Clinton’s decision to start her trip in the often-overlooked South Pacific. Clinton - the first US secretary of state to attend an annual South Pacific summit - announced in the Cook Islands on Friday $32m in aid projects.

She emphasised, however, that there was ample room for all countries - including the US and China - to work together to help Pacific nations. Clinton vowed that the US would remain committed to the South Pacific “for the long haul” and offered new aid as she became the first US secretary of state to take part in an annual summit in the vast but sparsely populated region.

Her visit comes as several island states forge closer ties with China, which according to Australia’s Lowy Institute has pledged more than $600m in low-interest and mostly strings-free loans to the South Pacific since 2005.

Clinton, who will visit Beijing next week for talks on the often fractious relationship between the world’s two largest economies, played down rivalries in the Pacific during the summit in the tiny Cook Islands. “We think it is important for the Pacific island nations to have good relationships with as many partners as possible and that includes China and the US,” she told reporters.

Amid criticism that China’s open wallet has undermined international pressure for democracy in Fiji and other nations, she said: “Here in the Pacific, we want to see China act in a fair and transparent way”.

Chinese media have warned the United States against seeking to exploit recent escalations over territorial sea disputes between China and its neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Some countries in the region already have US military support while others seek closer security ties to counter what they call China’s growing assertiveness in the sovereignty disagreements.

Locke also stressed the importance - but also the challenge - of strengthening US-China cooperation, highlighting contentious issues such as trade relations, currency policies, Iran, Syria and human rights. “A China that is more open to all views, ideas and expressions, will lead to a stronger and more secure China,” he said.  “We’ve got a long way to go” in US-China cooperation, he said, “but I’m hopeful that working together we can escape from historical patterns and instead forge a legacy of cooperation and partnership.”