WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta departs this weekend on a trip to China, Japan and New Zealand, officials said Sept. 13, as part of a U.S. bid to shift toward the region despite crises in the Middle East.
But it was unclear if Panetta would meet Beijing’s leader-in-waiting, whose whereabouts have been the subject of intense speculation.
Panetta’s visit to China, his first as Pentagon chief, comes amid regional tensions fueled by territorial disputes and swirling rumors over the political fate of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who has virtually disappeared from public view in the past two weeks.
Xi spoke through state media on Sept. 13 but has not been seen in public for 13 days.
Asked if Panetta was due to meet Xi, Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “This is not something I would comment on. This is for the Chinese to discuss, of course.”
The U.S. delegation looked forward “to meetings with top Chinese military leaders” but “the itinerary hasn’t been locked in stone,” Little told a news conference.
“We believe this will be a very productive and cordial visit, one that will advance our shared goals of a more transparent and even more viable relationship with the Chinese military,” he added.
Panetta’s trip marks his third to Asia in 11 months, underscoring President Barack Obama’s bid to “rebalance” Washington’s focus toward the region.
Despite the much-publicized tilt to the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration has been forced to confront recurring turmoil in the Middle East, with a deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya on Sept. 11 by Islamist militants.
Panetta’s trip to Asia coincides with mounting friction between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes.
In the potentially resource-rich East China Sea, Beijing and Tokyo have clashed over disputed islands. In the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of a wave of intimidation against fishermen and rival nations’ ships as Beijing exerts its claims to virtually all of the strategic waterway.
Before his visit to China, Panetta will fly to Japan, where China’s more assertive stance is expected to top the agenda as well as U.S. plans to deploy tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft at an American military base on Okinawa.
The plan to move 12 Osprey aircraft to the southern island has sparked major protests but U.S. officials say they have no intention of scrapping the idea.
“We’ve been in close consultation with Japanese defense officials about the MV-22 Osprey aircraft,” Little said.
Pentagon officials have sought to reassure their Japanese counterparts on the safety of the Osprey, briefing them on the circumstances of an April crash in Morocco that killed two U.S. Marines.
The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and then rotate its motors down enabling it to fly like a turboprop plane, was plagued by crashes and technical problems in its early phase but U.S. commanders insist the aircraft is safe.
Tens of thousands of people staged protests in Okinawa over the weekend, demanding the U.S. scrap plans to move the aircraft there.
The Pentagon said that Japan had made no request to alter plans to deploy the aircraft.
“I’m unaware of any request to postpone the deployment or operation of the Osprey. I don’t have a timeline for when the Osprey will go fully operational but, as I said, we believe the deployment remains on track,” Little said.
After stops in Tokyo and Beijing, Panetta will head to New Zealand, the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the country in more than 30 years, officials said.
Panetta’s trip to New Zealand follows the signing of a cooperation agreement in June between the two defense ministries.