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Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun rejected reports that the US defense chief was avoiding China as Leon Panetta is due to visit later this year. Zhu Xingxin / China Daily
US must 'respect' China's legitimate concerns in Asia-Pacific region
Beijing on Thursday urged Washington to respect China's interests in the Asia-Pacific region as US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed, on the eve of his Asia trip, that the US will increase its military presence.
Although the US has insisted that its strategic shift to the region is not targeted at China, experts said Washington's deeds, including its plan to highlight the South China Sea issue at an annual regional security meeting at the weekend, exposed its true intentions.
They also reminded US officials to choose their words carefully to avoid denting Beijing's trust.
Asked about Panetta's Asian trip, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a news briefing on Thursday that China hoped the US would "play a positive and constructive role in the region".
"We also hope the US will respect China's interests and concerns in the region," he added.
Panetta said before leaving the US on Tuesday that his trip to Vietnam, Singapore and India was aimed at remaining "vigilant" in the face of China's growing military.
"China's military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge," Panetta said when addressing graduates of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Still, he said the key to peace in the region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation with China.
He is also due to join a large high-ranking US delegation at the annual Asia security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore on Saturday. Defense ministers and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states will attend the forum.
According to Pentagon officials, who briefed the media anonymously, Panetta is to deliver a major policy speech at the forum, "focusing on the Asia-Pacific, and the US role in the Asia-Pacific in light of the new strategy and rebalance".
The South China Sea "will be something that's pretty high on people's minds during Panetta's trip", a US official told the media.
The officials also said that the US defense secretary welcomes the opportunity to meet Chinese officials at the forum.
Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said at a regular news briefing on Thursday that Beijing will send Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, vice-president of the PLA Academy of Military Science, to lead the Chinese delegation at the dialogue.
He dismissed reports that China had deliberately lowered the ranking of its delegation, saying it followed normal arrangements based on scheduled commitments.
Yang did not exclude the possibility of a meeting between high-ranking Chinese officers and Panetta at the forum, and rejected reports that Panetta's Asia trip avoided China as Panetta has announced he will visit later this year.
However, the US defense secretary will have to watch his language in Singapore and Vietnam to avoid heightening Beijing's concerns that the renewed US strategic focus on Asia seeks to contain China's rise as a global power, Reuters quoted an expert as saying.
"It's ... important for the kinds of message that he wants to send, lest there be triggering responses on the part of the Chinese," said Jonathan Pollack, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank.
"So words do count. And ... hopefully he (Panetta) will be careful about what he says."
Panetta's visit follows the strategic shift toward Asia announced by US President Barack Obama last year, when the president announced plans to increase military presence in the region by 2017 despite cuts to the military budget.
Panetta specifically mentioned, in his Tuesday speech, strengthening alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and the Philippines to safeguard American interests in the region.
Relations between Beijing and Manila plunged in April after Chinese vessels prevented a Philippine warship from arresting fishermen in Chinese territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Shortly after the incident, the US and the Philippines held a high-profile series of joint war drills. Over 7,000 troops took part in the exercises.
Panetta is expected to meet with defense officials from the Philippines during his trip.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino will visit the US on June 8.
The US is not only attempting to consolidate ties with traditional allies but is also expanding its influence to new partners, Shi Yinhong, an expert on international relations with Renmin University of China, said.
"Although Washington denies its strategic shift is aimed at any one country, it is obvious that China is one of its concerns ... The shift shows that the US is taking strategic precautions against China," Shi said.
The strategic shift indicates that the US has concentrated more of its focus on China, said Liu Hui, an expert on American studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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(China Daily 06/01/2012 page1)