Pentagon chief Leon Panetta to visit China and Japan, then New Zealand
Panetta expected to tackle rising tensions between China and Japan over disputed isles
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta departs Washington this weekend on a trip to China, Japan and New Zealand, American officials said, as part of a bid to shift focus towards the region despite crises in the Middle East.
Panetta's trip to Asia coincides with mounting friction between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes.
Before his visit to Beijing, Panetta will fly to Tokyo, where China's more assertive stance is expected to top the agenda, as well as US plans to deploy tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft at an American military base on Okinawa.
Analysts believe the talks with China, although long scheduled, will touch on tensions over the Diaoyu Islands claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo, which calls them the Senkaku Islands.
The Global Times, an English-language newspaper affiliated to the People's Daily, said in an editorial yesterday that Chinese people generally believe the US plays up to Japan's provocation of China and urged Tokyo to give up on the idea of its alliance with Washington providing a solution to the dispute with Beijing.
Asked if Panetta was due to meet Vice-President Xi Jinping , Pentagon spokesman George Little said: "This is not something I would comment on. This is for the Chinese to discuss, of course."
The earlier cancellation of a meeting between Xi and US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has sparked intense speculation over Xi's health.
The US delegation looked forward "to meetings with top Chinese military leaders", but "the itinerary hasn't been locked in stone", Little said. "We believe this will be a very productive and cordial visit, one that will advance our shared goals of a more transparent and even more viable relationship with the Chinese military," he added.
Meanwhile, the plan to move 12 Osprey aircraft to Japan's southern island of Okinawa has sparked major protests in the country due to safety concerns, but US officials say they have no intention of scrapping the idea.
After Japan and China, Panetta will become the first US defence secretary in more than 30 years to visit New Zealand.
Additional reporting by Staff Reporter