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Panetta: Asia focus not aimed to contain China

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, shakes hands with China's Vice President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

BEIJING: Top Chinese leaders have a better understanding of America’s new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but they are concerned that there is too much emphasis on China’s military build-up rather than economic or diplomatic efforts, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

After two days of meetings with political and military officials, Panetta said he comes away hopeful that the two nations can work together to bolster security in the region.

While it appears Panetta is not leaving China with any tangible agreements, he believed he had assured his hosts that U.S. plans to add troops, ships and a new missile defense site in the region are not meant to threaten China.

“The key for them is that as we develop and strengthen our presence here, that we do it in conjunction with developing a strong U.S.-China relationship,” Panetta told reporters shortly after he met with China’s future leader, Vice President Xi Jinping. “That gave me a lot of hope that they understand exactly what our whole intention is here.”

More broadly, Panetta’s China visit was focused on slowly repairing America’s troubled military relationship with China, and opening the door for better communications so that the two nations can avoid misunderstandings.

Still, his visit came as violent protests raged around the country over a territorial dispute between China and Japan. The U.S. says it will remain neutral in the matter. But protesters slammed America, charging that the increased U.S. activity in the region has emboldened Japan and other countries to challenge China in such disputes.

Panetta spent much of his time explaining the U.S. military’s new shift to the Pacific, which has fueled worries of increased tensions or conflict with China and its 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army.

In a speech to Chinese troops Wednesday, he laid out a more pointed argument that the growing American presence in the region includes an effort to build a stronger relationship with Beijing.

“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,” Panetta said in a speech to cadets and young officers at the Engineering Academy of PLA Armored Forces.

“It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers.”

Panetta met Wednesday with Xi, who reappeared just days ago after a puzzling two-week disappearance that raised questions about his health.

Xi stood to greet the American delegation in a lavish room in the Great Hall of the People and energetically shook Panetta’s hand.

Once seated, he said Panetta’s visit “will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relations between our two countries.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 10.

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