Beijing frets over US 'pivot' as defence chief Leon Panetta issues warning
The 'pivot' by the US towards Asia is worrying China, while America fears territorial disputes in the region could explode into open conflict
Greg Torode, Chief Asia correspondent
The United States defence secretary, Leon Panetta, flies to Beijing today for his first visit as military chief after warning that China's territorial disputes with its neighbours could degenerate into conflict.
While China's fears over the scope and intent of the US' strategic "pivot" back to Asia, from the Middle East, are expected to dominate broader talks, Panetta will also wade into Sino-Japanese tensions over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Arriving in Tokyo last night for his first stop on a three-nation tour, Panetta said: "I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict.
"And that conflict would then have the potential of expanding," he said before appealing for restraint over tensions in the East China and South China seas.
Washington does not take a position on the region's territorial disputes, but it has stated that the Diaoyus, or the Senkakus as called by the Japanese, fall under its security treaty with Tokyo.
While Panetta is keen to deepen and broaden Sino-US military relations, specifically promoting ties among junior officers, Chinese officials led by his host, defence minister General Liang Guanglie, are expected to express growing concerns about Washington's expanding defence relationships beyond China's borders, amid growing fears of containment.
Chinese officials warned before his visit, both publicly and privately, that while they welcomed a continued US security presence, the vaunted "pivot" was encircling China.
Such fears also feed into mounting tensions over the disputed islands, with Beijing officials concerned that the strategic shift by the US was now emboldening its rival claimants in territorial disputes.
In one state press commentary last week, PLA Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhou warned of "strategic distrust" between the two sides and of a "great change" in Washington's military strategy in the past year.
"Conflicting signals sent by the US exacerbate China's suspicion about Washington's strategic intentions," Zhao wrote in a commentary that circulated widely in US military circles.
"Although high-ranking US officials have denied that Washington's actions are aimed at Beijing, the circle around China orchestrated by the US seems to be tightening."
Washington, as well as moving US Marines to northern Australia and crack new coastal attack craft to Singapore, is deepening strategic ties with newer friends, including Indonesia and Vietnam. It is also eyeing expanded logistical presences at former cold war-era US bases in Thailand and the Philippines.
During Panetta's last Asian visit in June, he announced that 60 per cent of the US naval fleet would be based in the Pacific.
Panetta's staff said he would be stressing the importance of deeper military ties to the broader relationship. "We will not achieve security and prosperity in the 21st century without a constructive US-China relationship, including a stronger military-to-military relationship," one senior official said.
"We are encouraging our allies and partners in Asia to do the same," he said.
Officials also confirmed that Panetta would be visiting military facilities near Beijing, including the PLA Armoured Engineering Academy. "There we'll have an opportunity to meet and interact with mid-grade and junior officers, which is also one of the big priorities we have in the relationship," another senior official said.
Panetta's visits come after Liang's extensive tours of military bases during his trip to the US in May, a mission that included calling in at command centres and the West Point military academy, and the first visit by a Chinese defence secretary to the Pentagon in nine years.
After China, Panetta heads to New Zealand, the one-time US ally that is now the southernmost part of the "pivot", as Washington eyes Chinese influence in the South Pacific, where he will be the first US defence chief to visit in 30 years.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse