Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) yesterday held his first talks with a foreign official since vanishing from the public eye nearly two weeks ago, telling US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta he wanted to advance ties with the US.
Xi’s disappearance had prompted widespread rumors that he was ill or worse ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, when he is expected to be named party chief.
Asked if he had learned why Xi had been out of view for some time, Panetta referred the question to the Chinese government, but added: “Frankly, my impression was that he was very healthy and very engaged.”
Panetta said their scheduled 45-minute meeting had run over by more than half an hour, in part because the vice president “was very much engaged in the discussion” and wanted to raise a range of bilateral strategic issues facing the two countries.
“I believe that your visit will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and mil-to-mil [military-to-military] relations between our two countries,” Xi told Panetta during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People.
Pentagon spokesman George Little called the discussions constructive and candid, covering issues ranging from North Korea to “the importance of the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes.”
Panetta’s visit has come at a fraught time for China, which is in the midst of a row with US ally Japan over who owns a small group of islands in the East China Sea. The dispute has triggered anti-Japanese protests in China in the past few days.
Critics in China believe that a US move to shift its strategic focus to the region has encouraged countries like Japan to be more bold when dealing with Beijing.
However, Panetta, in remarks later to cadets at a Chinese military academy, sought to convince Beijing that the shift in focus was not an attempt to hem in China.
Panetta told students at the Armored Forces Engineering Academy that expanding US missile defenses in Asia were aimed at North Korea, not China, and that deepening US defense ties with allies in the region were to reinforce a security system that had helped China flourish.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,” he said. “It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific. It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers.”
However, that message is difficult to sell to a skeptical Chinese audience concerned about US missile defenses in Japan, expanding military ties with the Philippines and suspicion that Washington wants military access to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
“The Chinese just don’t buy it. They are not convinced,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“Moreover they see the US as emboldening nations like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam who have territorial disputes with China to directly confront Beijing,” she said.