U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Chinese troops Wednesday that Washington's new strategic military shift toward Asia is not meant to contain the rise of China.
Panetta's comments to young officers at a Chinese military academy in Beijing are one of Washington's most direct statements yet about the intentions of its "pivot" toward the region.
"Our re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China," said Panetta. "It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Asia-Pacific. It's about creating a new model in the relationship of our two Pacific powers. It's about renewing and revitalizing our role in a part of the world that is rapidly becoming more critical to our economic, diplomatic, and security interests."
Panetta also said expanding U.S. missile defense systems are aimed at North Korea's ballistic missile arsenal, and not at China.
The Pentagon chief is using his three-day trip to China to promote deeper military ties between Washington and Beijing, which have become skeptical of one another's intentions in the Asia-Pacific.
Earlier Wednesday, Panetta met with Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, who made his first public appearance with a visiting dignitary after an unexplained two-week absence from public life.
On Wednesday, a smiling and energetic Xi said he hoped Panetta's visit will help advance "state-to-state and military-to-military" ties between Washington and Beijing.
Washington has expressed concern at China's military build-up and increased assertiveness in defending its maritime claims. Beijing fears Washington's new focus on Asia is emboldening U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines to directly confront China.
In his speech at the military academy, Panetta acknowledged that building mutual trust will take time. But he says it is important for both sides to look beyond the disagreements to areas where they can work together.
The defense secretary's visit comes as China and Japan, an American ally, are involved in a bitter territorial dispute about a group of islands in the East China Sea. Panetta has urged both sides to exercise restraint and repeated Washington's insistence that it does not take sides in the dispute.
But an article in the Communist Party-controlled Global Times on Wednesday says it is "obvious" that Washington is partial to Japan. The newspaper, which often reflects official thinking, says Beijing should use Panetta's visit to let the United States know it will take all necessary steps to safeguard the islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and in Japanese as Senkaku.
Boisterous anti-Japan protests that spread across China on Tuesday were also partly focused on the United States. The U.S. State Department issued a statement that a car carrying U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke was mildly damaged after about 50 protesters surrounded it outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The statement says the ambassador was not hurt and the protesters were dispersed by Chinese security personnel.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.