QINGDAO, China — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had a rare first-hand look inside a Chinese naval base Sept. 20, 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.
The Chinese navy’s latest warships and submarines are the subject of intense scrutiny by U.S. military strategists, defense analysts and American lawmakers, and there are concerns about Beijing’s growing military might.
But Chinese officers gave Panetta a close-up look at several vessels, a U.S. defense official said, including the frigate Yantai, which recently supported joint counter-piracy operations with the U.S. in the Gulf of Aden.
He 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 the U.S. 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.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,” he told an audience of cadets and young officers. “It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific.
“It’s about creating a new model in the relationship of our two Pacific powers.”
U.S. 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.
But the effect of Beijing’s military spending is open to debate, with some skeptics accusing the American defense industry and lawmakers of overstating China’s military prowess.
For its part, China has questioned America’s Asia-Pacific plans, criticizing proposals to deploy 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 week-long 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.