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.
PHOTOS: Anti-Japan protests in China
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
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