Beijing: The US on Wednesday assured China that its military focus on Asia-Pacific is not aimed at containing Beijing as Defence Secretary Leon Penetta met a "healthy" Xi Jinping, the first foreign leader to do so after China's leader-in-waiting mysteriously vanished from public view.
Panetta, who is on a four-day China visit, is the first foreign dignitary to hold talks in recent weeks with Xi, whose absence from the political scene for about a fortnight this month sparked off rumours about his serious illness ahead of the leadership change in the ruling CPC.
Rumours about 59-year-old Xi's health started circulating after cancellation of his scheduled meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month.
"Frankly my impression was that he was very healthy and very engaged," Panetta told reporters after his meeting with Xi, who is set to succeed President Hu Jintao at the Congress of the ruling Communist Party which is expected to take place in the next few weeks.
Panetta's meeting with Xi, which was scheduled for 45 minutes, went beyond the allotted time, a day after the US Defence Secretary held talks with Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang Guanglie.
Later, Panetta in his interaction with young Chinese military officers and cadets of the Engineering Academy of People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) Armoured Forces faced tough questions on China's disputes with Japan and other neighbours over maritime territorial boundaries.
"Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China. It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific," he said, defending America's 'Asia Pivot' policy which China said was aimed at containing its rise.
"It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers," Panetta said.
Panetta said that improving relations and building trust
will take time and that, "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."
"As the world's two largest economies, China and the US must forge stronger ties between their armies to avoid potential conflict or crises," he said. "Our goal is to make sure that no dispute or misunderstanding escalates into unwanted tensions or a conflict."
He defended the US move to shift its focus to Asia- Pacific, saying that international law backed up by US naval power, had helped bring prosperity and peace to the region and China had profited from it.
"Many countries -- and many millions of people in the region -- have benefited from this rules-based order, and that includes China," he said.
About the Sino-Japanese differences over the islands, he said he is hopeful that the issue would be settled peacefully after his talks this week in Tokyo and Beijing.
"I am confident after my discussions with both Japanese leadership and Chinese leaders that both are concerned with finding ways to able to resolve these issues," he said, replying to a question from a cadet.
He said the United States is enhancing its ballistic missile defence capabilities in the region.
"Let me make clear that it is aimed solely at one threat: the threat from North Korea," Panetta said, referring to the installation of a second radar in Japan.
"It is no secret that the United States is deeply concerned about the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles striking our allies, striking the United States, striking our forward-deployed forces (and) striking our homeland."
North Korea has tested nuclear devices and continues to enrich uranium and test ballistic missiles, he said.
Ballistic missile defence systems, like the rebalancing effort itself, are designed to foster peace and sustain the region's security and prosperity, he said.
Looking relaxed and normal, Xi, during his meeting with Panetta, raised China's objections over Japan's "purchase" of the disputed islands, describing it as a farce being enacted by Tokyo.
"Japan should rein in its behaviour and stop any words and acts that undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xi told Panetta, who arrived here after a visit to Tokyo.
Outlining China's claims that the Diaoyu islands historically formed part of it, Xi said Japan's move to buy the islands from a private Japanese owner intensified the neighbours' territorial disputes.
First Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012, 14:32