US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had a rare first-hand look inside a Chinese naval base yesterday, as Washington pushes security dialogue with a country that could rival its power in the Pacific.
On the third day of his visit to China, Panetta flew to the eastern port of Qingdao, home to the headquarters of the Chinese navy’s northern fleet, becoming the first Pentagon chief to set foot inside the facility.
However, most details of his visit — like much of the information about China’s military — were off limits to the media traveling with him. Instead, the reporters got beer. Chinese officials refused to let reporters stay with Panetta as he went aboard the ships, so the media were taken to the nearby Tsingtao Brewery for a tour.
The Chinese navy’s latest warships and submarines are the subject of intense scrutiny by US military strategists, defense analysts and US lawmakers, and there are concerns about Beijing’s growing military might.
According to a US defense official, Chinese officers gave Panetta a close-up look at several vessels, including the frigate Yantai, which recently supported joint counterpiracy operations with the US in the Gulf of Aden.
Panetta also toured the conventionally powered Great Wall 197 submarine, which has torpedo, minelaying and reconnaissance capabilities.
Panetta’s visit came a day after he spoke at a military engineering academy in Beijing, saying that the US strategic tilt to the Pacific was not to curtail China’s power, but an effort to promote stability in an area vital to the global economy.
US officials worry that Beijing’s increasing focus on precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles could render an array of bases and aircraft carriers vulnerable in key waterways.
The growing rivalry with China is driving plans in Washington to fund stealth fighters, electronic jamming equipment and other hardware.
However, the effect of Beijing’s military spending is open to debate, with some skeptics accusing the US defense industry and lawmakers of overstating China’s military prowess.
For its part, China has questioned the US’ Asia-Pacific plans, criticizing proposals to deploy US marines to Australia and shift more ships to Southeast Asia.
During his visit, Panetta has adopted a conciliatory tone, offering to work with Beijing as a partner to address common threats such as natural disasters or piracy.
Panetta’s weeklong Asia tour, which started in Japan on Sunday and will wrap up in New Zealand, comes at a delicate time with tensions soaring between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands in the East China Sea.