BEIJING — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta came here hoping to allay Chinese concerns that the U.S. is pursuing a new military containment strategy aimed at Asia’s biggest power, but he failed to fully convince the leaders in Beijing.
Vice President Xi Jingping and other Chinese officials told Panetta that the Obama administration’s Asia strategy is too focused on rebuilding the U.S. military posture in the region after a decade of war in the Middle East. They urged the U.S. to place more weight on diplomacy and less on threatening forms of American power, U.S. officials said.
“No one mentioned the word containment or that our efforts were aimed at China,” Panetta told reporters, referring to his two days of talks with Chinese leaders. “At the same time, what they did raise were concerns about the military emphasis of our rebalancing to the Pacific.”
Panetta’s meeting with Xi was the first by a U.S. official since the vice president, who is widely believed to be in line to become China’s top leader later this year, dropped out of public view earlier this month, leading to speculation he had health problems or was involved in a leadership struggle.
U.S. officials declined to say whether Xi explained his two-week absence from public view, which Chinese officials have said was related to back troubles.
Panetta told reporters later that Xi seemed “very healthy and very engaged.” But in private, Xi, who is believed to support closer ties with the U.S., raised concerns about American military moves in Asia, U.S. officials said.
He also complained to Panetta about Japan’s moves to assert control this month over the disputed East China Sea island chain, known by Japan as the Senkakus and by China as Diaoyu.
"Japan should rein in its behavior and stop any words and acts that undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xi told Panetta, according to China’s official New China News Agency.
Panetta has stressed repeatedly during stops in Tokyo and Beijing that Washington takes no position on the territorial dispute and wants to see it resolved peacefully, but the close U.S.-Japanese defense relationship has only added to China’s concerns that it is facing new military threats on its periphery.
Before arriving in Beijing, Panetta announced in Tokyo that Washington planned to place a sophisticated anti-missile radar system in southern Japan. He said the system would help the U.S. and Japan better defend against potential missile launches by North Korea and free up U.S. Navy ships that patrol near the Korean peninsula.
Chinese officials worry that the anti-missile system could also be used to degrade the effectiveness of its ballistic missile arsenal.
Chinese officials have questioned U.S. officials repeatedly since President Obama announced the new Asia strategy last year about whether its goal is to contain China’s rising power in the region. The White House announcement has been followed by Pentagon moves in recent months to reposition U.S. troops, planes and warships to Southeast Asia, which the U.S. pulled out of after the Vietnam War.
U.S. officials were worried enough about the Chinese fears of military encirclement that Panetta addressed the issues directly Wednesday in speech to military cadets at the Peoples Liberation Army armored engineering academy on the outskirts of Beijing.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,” he said. “It is about renewing and revitalizing our role in a part of the world that is rapidly becoming more critical to our economic, diplomatic and security interests."
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--David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta has lunch with cadets Wednesday in the mess hall at the Peoples Liberation Army's armored engineering academy in Beijing. Credit: Larry Downing, pool / Getty Images.