Panetta in China for high-level talks, tour of naval base
BEIJING -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here Monday for three days of high-level talks with Chinese officials, including Vice President Xi Jinping, who dropped out of sight earlier this month amid speculation he was having health problems.
Chinese officials informed the Pentagon only a few days ago that Panetta would be able to meet with Xi, who is widely considered to be the country's next top leader.
It was an indication that China's civilian leadership sees Panetta's visit -- his first to China as defense secretary -- as an important one at a time when the Obama administration is beefing up the U.S. military presence in the region and territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbors have raised tensions.
Earlier this month, a planned meeting between Xi and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was canceled by the Chinese. At the time, Xi had not been seen in public since early September, and there was speculation he had suffered a mild stroke. He reappeared last weekend.
"We have expressed an interest in meeting with the vice president," a U.S. defense official told reporters traveling with Panetta. Panetta met with Xi earlier this year at the Pentagon and was hopeful for a "continuation of the dialogue," the official said.
Panetta will also meet with Gen. Liang Guanglie, the defense minister, and with Dai Bingguo, the state councilor and a senior foreign policy and security official.
The high-level meetings will give Panetta a chance to "listen to concerns that the Chinese leadership has" about the new U.S. defense strategy focus on Asia and "to seek to address them," said the U.S. official, who spoke anonymously because he was previewing the visit.
Chinese officials also confirmed in recent days that Panetta would be allowed to tour a naval base in Qingdao, headquarters of the country's northern fleet. He will be allowed to go aboard a Chinese frigate and a submarine, U.S. officials said. He is the first U.S. Defense secretary permitted to visit the facility, they said.
To accommodate that part of the trip, Panetta is staying an extra day in China, leaving Thursday for New Zealand, officials said.
The talks with Chinese officials come after the U.S. announced it was putting a new radar installation in southern Japan, a move that U.S. officials say is aimed at better detecting North Korean missiles but which is likely to raise concerns in China that it is the target of the expanding U.S. missile defense system in the region.
Panetta is also arriving amid tensions between Japan and China over their contested claims to an East China Sea island chain, called the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese and the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese.
Panetta will press the Chinese officials to ease tensions over the islands and other territorial disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea, said the U.S. official who spoke anonymously.
"It's an opportunity to hear from the Chinese themselves about what their intentions are," he said.
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-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta is welcomed by Chinese military leaders after his arrival at Beijing International Airport on Monday. Credit: Larry Downing / Associated Press