Panetta seeks to reassure Xi Jinping over US motives in Asia Pacific
Panetta says so-called Asia Pacific pivot isn't an attempt to contain China but rather to engage it
An apparently robust Vice-President Xi Jinping met US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Beijing yesterday for talks in which the Pentagon chief repeatedly sought to assure China that the United States was not trying to surround or contain it.
Leader-in-waiting Xi's first meeting with a foreign official since his mysterious two-week disappearance for health reasons saw the pair discuss Washington's expanding military presence in East Asia as well as intensifying Sino-US tensions over the Diaoyu Islands.
Xi rose to meet his guest in the Great Hall of the People, greeting him with a hearty handshake before delivering, among other points, a strong message for Japan, the US ally that Panetta visited en route to Beijing.
"Japan should rein in its behaviour and stop any words and acts that undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying. He described the Japanese government's purchase of the Diaoyus, which Tokyo calls the Senkakus, as a farce.
He also told Panetta that his visit - his first since becoming Pentagon chief in July 2011 - "will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relations between our two countries". Panetta said he was confident of improved security ties between the "two great Pacific nations".
China's leaders are increasingly concerned about the scope and intent of Washington's strategic "pivot" to the Asia Pacific - a policy to boost its already considerable forces and military relationships in the region while scaling back its presence in Europe and the Middle East.
Panetta has already ordered 60 per cent of all naval ships to be in the region by 2020 and announced expansions to Japan's missile defences just a day before he arrived in Beijing.
US strategic planners, meanwhile, fear a lack of transparency about China's military build-up and mounting pressures on its regional allies and friends. Diplomats and scholars on both sides acknowledge considerable effort will be needed to ease mounting concerns in the longer term.
To that end, Panetta told ranks of People's Liberation Army troops at the Engineering Academy of the PLA Armoured Forces that it would take time to build trust.
"Despite the distance ... we have travelled over the past 40 years, it is clear that this journey is not yet complete, particularly for our two militaries," he said.
"We must be clear-eyed about the challenges and difficulties that we face as two major powers. We will not agree on every issue that comes before us. But we cannot let those disagreements and those challenges blind us to the opportunities that exist."
Panetta insisted the US "pivot" was not an attempt to contain China, instead couching it as "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," he said.
The speech to the academy and the meeting with Xi were the climax to a three-day visit.
Additional reporting by Associated Press