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Panetta’s reassurance to China on strategy still leaves skeptics

By Gopal Ratnam

Bloomberg News

LAST UPDATED: 9:35 a.m. HST, Sep 19, 2012

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried on his first visit to China to assure his hosts the Pentagon’s strategy for the Asia-Pacific region isn’t aimed at constraining their military. He didn’t convince everyone.

“We want the U.S. to reconcile their actions and statements to make China believe that the U.S. indeed doesn’t intend to contain China,” Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview.

Panetta may have made his pitch to the Chinese more difficult because on the way to Beijing he stopped in Tokyo, where plans were announced to place a second U.S. anti-missile radar system in Japan. While the Pentagon said the advanced X- band radar was intended to track ballistic missiles from North Korea, Shen said the timing created suspicions the U.S. was backing its ally Japan in a dispute with China over ownership of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

The Pentagon’s global strategy to “rebalance” U.S. military assets, announced in January, will result in placing 60 percent of American naval assets in the Asia-Pacific region, up from about 50 percent now, according to Panetta. The U.S. plans to redeploy to Guam military forces stationed in Japan and rotate a contingent of Marines through Australia, and probably also the Philippines.

Xi Meeting

After two days of meetings that included visits with his Chinese counterpart General Liang Guanglie and Vice President Xi Jinping, Panetta said officials in Beijing “acknowledge that the U.S. presence in the Pacific is not something they view as a threat.” At a news conference today in Beijing, Panetta said, “No one mentioned containment or that our efforts were aimed at China.”

Still, the U.S. position on the China-Japan island dispute became a prism through which U.S.-China ties were being judged. Panetta repeatedly said in Beijing that the U.S. isn’t taking sides in the island dispute between China and Japan.

Speaking with cadets at a military academy near Beijing today, Panetta told a questioner that he understood China’s ordeal at Japan’s hands during World War II. He urged the Chinese to move beyond such historical grievances.

“I understand the deep wounds that China suffered during World War II and nobody understands those wounds better than the U.S., because the U.S. also suffered deep wounds” during the conflict, Panetta said. “At the same time, we can’t live in the past, we must live in the future.”

Island Standoff

The standoff over control of the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, has sparked the worst bilateral crisis between China and Japan since 2005, endangering a trade relationship that has tripled in the past decade to more than $340 billion.

It also comes ahead of a once-a-decade leadership change this year in China that was clouded by a two-week absence by Vice President Xi, who is in line to be president.

Xi’s unexplained absence, which sparked speculation about his health or turmoil in the leadership, first drew attention when he canceled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 5. Panetta was the first international visitor to meet with the vice president since he resurfaced in public over the weekend.

“I believe that your visit will be very helpful in advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relationship between our countries,” Xi told Panetta.

The vice president “looked very healthy and very engaged” during their meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Panetta told reporters afterward.

’Inherent’ Territory

After meeting with Panetta, Xi criticized Japan’s move this week to buy the disputed islands from their private Japanese owner, calling the move a “farce,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Liang, the defense minister, said at a news conference yesterday that his country reserved the right to take action on the islands, calling them “inherent Chinese territory” that had been held by China for more than 500 years before Japan took possession.

Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam — all of which have territorial disputes with China over islands in the East and South China Seas — are “taking this U.S. rebalancing opportunity to exert pressure on China,” Shen said, reflecting sentiments expressed by Chinese military officers in officially approved publications. “While the U.S. can bring about stability” it appears to be creating instability, Shen said.

China and the Philippines have clashed this year over the Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea.

Japan’s Responsibility

Panetta told the military cadets today that Japan isn’t immune from criticism even though it’s a treaty ally of the U.S.

“We have made it clear to Japan’s leaders that they have a responsibility to resolve this dispute peacefully,” he said.

Panetta leaves Beijing tomorrow for Qingdao where he is to meet Vice Admiral Tian Zhong, commander of China’s North Sea Fleet. Panetta will also tour a Type 054A frigate and a Type 039 diesel-electric submarine.

Unlike Donald Rumsfeld, a predecessor as defense secretary who questioned China’s growing military strength, Panetta said today that the country’s military modernization is understandable given its economic growth.

To improve visits and contacts with Chinese military leaders, Panetta invited China to participate in 2014 in the Rimpac naval exercise, held every two years off the coast of Hawaii. It’s the world’s largest international naval exercise.

The two nations also discussed ways to improve coordination on cybersecurity and outer space activities, Panetta said.

Chinese officials also said the U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region can’t be limited to beefing up its military presence, Panetta said.

Panetta said the U.S. agreed with Chinese calls that the approach should “emphasize diplomatic relations, improving economic relations and improving aid to the area,” as well as security.

— With assistance from Michael Forsythe in Beijing. Editors: Larry Liebert, Terry Atlas

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