As China lurches from this summer’s naval standoff with the Philippines to the current war of words with Japan, the US is struggling to reassure its allies without provoking the Chinese.

While the administration’s strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” to the Pacific is framed by some as Cold War II, top military leaders have made clear in recent statements just how eager they are to avoid a clash with China. Just look at the picture (above) of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, said Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, speaking Tuesday at the Air Force Association‘s annual conference.

“Would we really fight over that?” asked Carlisle. “Because it’s literally a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”

The islands disputed between Japan and China, which call them respectively the Senkakus and Diaoyus, are larger but virtually uninhabited. (Just today, China’s presumptive next leader, Xi Jinping, told Japan to “rein in its behavior” over the isles). However, as with the Scarborough Shoal, offshore fishing and oil-exploration rights can lead to serious money. And both situations are aggravated by prickly national pride and by China’s growing might.

“China is building a capable force, [and] they’re bullying the neighborhood a little bit,” the PACOM deputy commander, Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant, last week at the National Defense Industrial Association’s “expeditionary warfare” conference in Panama City. There are “daily” incidents, he said, and if China threatens Japan and the Philippines in particular, “we have mutual defense treaties with those partners that you’re legally obligated to respond to,” Conant noted. (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand also have mutual-defense pacts with the US). So, he said, “we’re trying to make sure everybody understands what those obligations are.”

Beyond those legal lines, however, Conant went on, “I’ve come to the thought that having an ambiguous policy at a strategic level isn’t bad — isn’t bad,” he repeated. “Having an ambiguous policy gives you maneuver space.”

A State Department briefing in August showed how fine a line the US is trying to walk. Asked about the Senkaku Islands (the US uses the Japanese name), State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “we’ve consistently said that we see them falling under the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty” — which commits the US to “act to meet the common danger,” in an utterly unspecified way, in the event of “armed attack” on any “territories under the administration of Japan.” But as to whether the Japanese-administered islands are also rightfully Japanese-owned or properly belong to the Chinese, Nuland said, “we don’t take a position.”

“We don’t take sides in territorial disputes,” Conant said.

Calculated ambiguity plus persistent engagement seems to be the US formula for “managing” the People’s Republic of China — with plenty of firepower in reserve. “‘Engage but hedge': That’s a challenge,” said Carlisle. “You want to engage the PRC but you have to hedge with a deterrent capability to respond.”

Carlisle and two former Pacific Air Force Commanders at the AFA conference all emphasized the importance of continued contacts between the US and Chinese militaries. But Carlisle would like to see more “reciprocity” from the Chinese. “We have a tendency to be more open,” he said. “We invite them out, give them rides in airplanes, and it’s not the same in reverse.”

Reassuring the Chinese about the new Pacific strategy is a long, hard slog. “They think it’s all about containment,” said Conant. “It’s not, [but] you’re not going to change their mind overnight.”

Both Carlisle and Conant made clear they were painfully aware of what Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “Thucydides’s Trap“: the repeated historical pattern of a rising power — Athens in classical Greece, Germany in the early 1900s, or China now — and an established one — like Sparta, the British Empire, or the US — falling into escalating conflicts that lead to war.

“We cannot allow that to happen,” Conant said. “[So] when we say ‘managing the rise of’ somebody [i.e. China], that’s what we’re talking about. We’ve got to change that paradigm because history does not tell a good story.”

“History doesn’t have a lot of examples of existing powers and rising powers managing to get along well,” Carlisle said. “That’s what we face.”