By Luis Ramirez
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told China the United States is not trying to contain it as Washington shifts forces to the Pacific. The U.S. official is wrapping up a visit aimed at easing suspicions on both sides.
It was a visit full of challenges for Panetta, who faced questions from the Chinese about U.S. intentions as it implements a new strategy that shifts much of its military focus to the Pacific.
Panetta received hearty applause from cadets at a military academy in Beijing, where he sought to make clear what Washington’s intentions are.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China. It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific. It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers. It is about renewing and revitalizing our role in a part of the world that is rapidly becoming more critical to our economic, diplomatic and security interests,” Panetta said.
A territorial dispute between China and Japan cast a shadow over his trip. The two countries claim a string of uninhabited but resource-rich islands in the East China Sea. They are known in Japan as the Senkaku and as Diaoyu to the Chinese.
The dispute has triggered massive anti-Japanese demonstrations across China and raised concerns about a conflict that could indirectly draw in the United States, which has security agreements with Japan.
Panetta urged restraint and dialogue. The United States is officially neutral in the dispute.
In his remarks Wednesday, the defense secretary sought to reassure China that Washington calls on both sides – not just China – to avoid provocations.
“I’ve made very clear to Japanese leaders that they have a responsibility to resolve these issues peacefully and that’s our position,” Panetta said.
The defense secretary stayed in Beijing a day longer than planned to meet with China’s presumed future leader, Vice President Xi Jinping. It was Xi’s first public appearance in two weeks. His absence had fueled speculation about his condition and whereabouts.
Throughout his three-day visit in the Chinese capital, Panetta called for more transparency from Beijing as it modernizes its military. Chinese officials appeared to take a first step by inviting Panetta to visit the Chinese navy’s North Sea Command headquarters in the port city of Qingdao – the first such visit by a U.S. defense secretary.
China is the second stop on Panetta’s weeklong visit to Asia, which began in Japan last Sunday. His final stop is New Zealand.