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Panetta: New Asia focus not aimed to contain China

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BEIJING — Top Chinese leaders have a better understanding of America's new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but they are concerned that there is too much emphasis on China's military build-up rather than economic or diplomatic efforts, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

After two days of meetings with political and military officials, Panetta said he comes away hopeful that the two nations can work together to bolster security in the region.

While it appears Panetta is not leaving China with any tangible agreements, he believed he had assured his hosts that U.S. plans to add troops, ships and a new missile defense site in the region are not meant to threaten China.

"The key for them is that as we develop and strengthen our presence here, that we do it in conjunction with developing a strong U.S.-China relationship," Panetta told reporters shortly after he met with China's future leader, Vice President Xi Jinping. "That gave me a lot of hope that they understand exactly what our whole intention is here."

More broadly, Panetta's time in China was focused on slowly repairing America's long troubled military relationship with China — and opening the door for better communications so that the two nations can avoid misunderstandings.

Still, his visit came as violent protests raged around the country, over a territorial dispute between China and Japan. The U.S. says it will remain neutral in the matter. But protesters slammed America, charging that the increased U.S. activity in the region has emboldened Japan and other countries to challenge China in such disputes.

Panetta spent much of his time explaining the U.S. military's new shift to the Pacific, which has fueled worries of increased tensions or conflict with China and its 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army. In a speech to Chinese troops Wednesday, he laid out a more pointed argument that the growing American presence in the region includes an effort to build a stronger relationship with Beijing.

"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," Panetta said in a speech to cadets and young officers at the Engineering Academy of PLA Armored Forces. "It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers."

He acknowledged that improving relations and building trust will take time and said, "Despite the distance ... that we have traveled over the past 40 years, it is clear that this journey is not yet complete, particularly for our two militaries."

Tensions between the U.S. and China have reverberated across the region, often focused on America's support of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province. China has threatened to use force to block any Taiwanese bid for formal independence.

The U.S. also has been very vocal in blaming China for cyberattacks that emanate from the country and steal critical data from U.S. government agencies and American companies.

Panetta has stressed that change will take time. But he said he sees real progress towards building a military-to-military relationship with China.

"We will have our differences," Panetta told reporters. "But the key is if we can have open communications and the ability to express views in a candid way... that more than almost anything else can lead to improved relations between the U.S. and China."

Panetta met Wednesday with Xi, who reappeared just days ago after a puzzling two-week disappearance that raised questions about his health.

Xi stood to greet the American delegation in a lavish room in the Great Hall of the People and energetically shook Panetta's hand. Once seated, he said Panetta's visit "will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relations between our two countries."

Panetta told Xi that the two Pacific powers have common concerns and that he is confident they will be able to improve their dialogue.

While Panetta's meetings with Chinese leaders this week touched on many of the disagreements between the two countries, his address to the academy stressed the need for each nation to trust the other and try to cooperate and communicate more. It is time, he said, to stop focusing on areas of dispute and suspicion and see the potential in areas where the two nations can work together.

Panetta's message to the Chinese troops built on his speech at the security conference in Singapore earlier this year, when he introduced America's new military focus on the Pacific to Asian nations.

He told the academy gathering Wednesday that America's future security and prosperity would be linked to Asia more than any other place in the world, but that it also is a region threatened by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, piracy and natural disasters. This is Panetta's first visit to China as defense secretary, and he is the first Pentagon chief to visit the academy.

While he did not specifically mention the new planned radar system in Japan that he announced earlier this week in Tokyo, Panetta issued a broader declaration that any such missile defense move by the U.S. was aimed directly at North Korea.

Pyongyang's moves to enrich uranium and test ballistic missiles are a direct threat to the security of Asia and the United States, he said, adding that "ballistic missile defense systems are designed to foster peace and stability in the region."

Follow Lolita C. Baldor on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lbaldor