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US should take a genuinely neutral stance in Diaoyu Islands dispute if it wants to improve military ties with China
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's three-day visit to China was part of efforts to bolster military-to-military ties with China and avoid the kind of on-again, off-again relationship they have had in the past.
During his first trip to China as the US defense secretary, Panetta talked with Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and other top Chinese officials on issues of common concern. He also visited the headquarters of China's North Sea Fleet. In a move to further strengthen military ties with China, Panetta said the US will invite a Chinese warship to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exercises, the biennial US-sponsored large-scale naval exercises that involve more than 20 countries.
Due to a lack of mutual trust, military ties are usually the first to suffer when Sino-US relations encounter difficulties. Thus, maintaining high-level visits, like Panetta's just-concluded trip, will play a positive role in improving military ties through promoting better communication and enhancing mutual trust. During his visit to the US in January 2011, President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart Barack Obama agreed to establish a cooperative partnership of mutual respect and mutual benefit, a consensus that was reaffirmed by the two countries during Vice-President Xi Jinping's visit to the US in February.
The eastward shift of the US' strategic focus in recent years has resulted in some strategic chaos in the Asia-Pacific region and caused controversy and misgivings among countries in the region. And although some senior US officials, including Panetta, have said such a strategy is not targeted at specific countries, the Obama administration has never clarified the new strategy. Some of the activities launched or accelerated by the US, including its regular military exercises with Asian allies in the Asia-Pacific region following the unveiling of its Asia-Pacific strategy, bear the hallmarks of a "China containment" policy.
To ease China's misgivings toward the readjusted US global strategy, Panetta, during his meetings with Chinese leaders, repeated his stance that China and the US are both Pacific powers that share common concerns. He also said that the eastward shift of the US' strategic focus is aimed at building ties with China and consolidating bilateral military links.
However, Washington's attitude toward security, territorial disputes and economic issues in the Asia-Pacific region has sent the opposite message.
The US' attitude toward the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands has aggravated China's misgivings toward Washington's Asia-Pacific strategy. The dispute was ignited by Japan following its "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands, a move that breached the consensus China and Japan reached during their decision to set up bilateral diplomatic ties and a peace treaty they signed in 1978.