BEIJING — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared Wednesday that the United States is not trying to contain a rising China, and he stressed that with time and effort — and patience — current tensions between the rivals could be resolved.
Panetta concluded a three-day visit in Beijing with a high-profile session with China’s presumptive next leader, Vice President Xi Jinping, an encounter that required the defense secretary to stay for an extra day, and a dialogue with future commanders at a People’s Liberation Army academy.
The meeting with Xi was viewed as additional proof that the vice president was clear of whatever physical or political ills had pushed him from public view for two weeks, prompting speculation about whether he would take China’s top post. Xi greeted Panetta with a handshake and a broad smile, and he said the meeting ‘‘would be very helpful in further advancing’’ ties between the United States and China.
Panetta echoed that sentiment. ‘‘We are two great Pacific nations with common concerns,’’ he told Xi. ‘‘We want to begin what you have called a ‘new model’ relationship, and we can begin with better military-to-military relations. I am convinced that we will be able to improve our dialogue.’’
Throughout Panetta’s visit, the Chinese and US delegations appeared intent on explaining their often-competing policies, not arguing about differences.
A striking example came after Panetta’s meeting Tuesday with the Chinese defense minister, General Liang Guanglie, who sharply criticized Japan over a sovereignty dispute concerning some tiny islands. Though Liang threatened Japan with unspecified ‘‘further actions,’’ he notably made no mention of the fact that the defense secretary of Japan’s closest military ally was standing next to him.
Panetta reiterated US policy that Washington would take no sides in territorial disputes across the region, but is urging all parties to seek a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
Panetta’s mission to Japan, China, and New Zealand is intended to show allies that Washington’s strategic rebalancing toward Asia is a reality, not just rhetoric. But he is also seeking to reassure Beijing that the new American focus on the region is not a threat to China.
‘‘Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,’’ Panetta said Wednesday in a speech to People’s Liberation Army officers and cadets. ‘‘It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific.’’
Panetta said at the Armored Forces Engineering Academy that a Chinese warship would be invited to join a major Pacific exercise hosted by the United States in waters off Hawaii, and he lauded Chinese cooperation in counterpiracy missions off the Horn of Africa.
Xi’s meeting with Panetta coincided with remarks by a former chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, that Xi’s earlier absence from public had been due to a back injury sustained while swimming.
Xi was not seen in public during the first two weeks of September, giving rise to speculation that he had hurt his back, had suffered a heart attack, or was in political trouble. Although Tung’s comments were not official, they were the first on-the-record remarks on the matter by a person close to the Chinese leadership.
Panetta was asked to assess Xi and the intrigue surrounding his absence. ‘‘Frankly, my impression was that he was very healthy and very engaged,’’ Panetta told reporters. ‘‘I guess you’ll have to ask them what issues were involved here.’’
He said Chinese leaders had urged that the US rebalancing in Asia not be solely military, but should include enhanced diplomatic and economic engagement as well.
‘‘These interactions made it clear to me that the leaders of both of our countries are sincerely working toward the same goal,’’ Panetta said.