Visiting China at what he called a “very important moment” for the U.S.-China relationship, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Sept. 19 his meetings with key Chinese leaders here have been both substantive and productive.
In a discussion with Chinese reporters and media representatives traveling with him, Panetta reviewed his meetings over two days with Chinese leaders including Vice President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie.
Key discussion points throughout the meetings, the secretary said, included territorial disputes, ballistic missile defense and North Korea, and cyber attack and intrusions. The overarching topic, he added, was the U.S.-China relationship in the context of the U.S. strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta drew a parallel in describing his advice to Chinese leaders over a territorial dispute simmering between China and Japan – which, he noted, he also tendered to Japanese senior government officials when he visited there earlier this week – and Chinese advice to him over North Korea. Each side urged the other to seek peaceful, diplomatic solutions to their differences, he noted.
The secretary said he has some understanding of the deep feelings and long-standing differences between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea. But, he added, “it’s really important that we not be trapped by the past and that we move forward.”
Panetta said his message on the topic is consistent to any country claiming disputed territory in the East China Sea or South China Sea: while the United States doesn’t take sides in territorial disputes, “we strongly urge the parties to exercise restraint and to work together to find a peaceful resolution to these issues.”
The secretary added that he also strongly urges the Asia-Pacific nations to form a multilateral forum to resolve regional conflicts according to agreed-upon principles.
Panetta said his meetings here gave him the impression that the Chinese are looking for a good format in which to try to resolve these issues for the future. “They, too, have a concern that these issues can’t just be resolved on the fly – that there’s got to be a process to try to deal with them,” he added.
Both Japanese and Chinese leaders signaled this week that they “recognize that it’s important not to let this kind of dispute get out of hand,” Panetta said.
China’s leaders similarly urged that the United States exercise restraint in its approach to North Korea, Panetta acknowledged. China, along with Russia, is one of North Korea’s principal allies.
U.S.-North Korea differences came to the fore this week when, during his stay in Japan, the secretary announced the United States and Japan are discussing expansion of Japan-based ballistic missile defense radar systems. Panetta emphasized the X-band radar, which detects ballistic missiles early in their flight and provides precise tracking information for targeting systems, is intended solely for defense against North Korea.
The secretary told reporters that North Korea threatens the United States, its forward-deployed forces and its allied and partner nations as it continues to test nuclear weapons and delivery systems and to enrich uranium in defiance of international law.
During his meetings with China’s leaders, Panetta said, he urged Chinese officials to try to persuade North Korea to engage with the United States to work on resolving these issues through diplomacy. In turn, he added, the Chinese leaders strongly recommended that the United States try to resolve its issues with North Korea peacefully.
Both sides noted that the recent change in North Korean leadership has produced some signs of softening in Pyongyang’s stance, he noted. “We agreed that there are changes that are taking place and that we have to keep track of those changes,” the secretary said.
Panetta said he also raised concerns about threats in the cyber domain, which he called the “potential battlefield for the future.”
Cyber technology “has the potential to cripple a country, paralyze a country … [and is] being used in order to exploit information – important economic information – from one country to the next,” he said.
Panetta said the United States “has concerns about what China has been doing, in terms of exploiting information,” and that during his meetings here he stressed the importance of the United States and China having a dialogue regarding cyber.
“I think we do have to make the effort to try to sit down with China and with other countries to discuss how we can approach cyber,” the secretary said. He added that cyber is a growing threat in China as well, and that “there was concurrence” during meetings that the topic is worthy of strategic discussion.
“There was a sense that there has to be an effort to look at the larger picture here and whether or not we can develop international rules and standards. … I thought that was a very good step to … at least beginning the discussion about dealing with this issue,” Panetta said.
The secretary has maintained throughout his comments to reporters this week that the chief focus of his visit to China was to strengthen military relations between the two countries and to seek Chinese response to the U.S. strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.
“What I hope this visit has made clear is that engagement with China is a critical part of [the rebalance],” he said. “And I believe we’re making real progress towards building a military-to-military relationship with China that is, in fact, healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous.”
China and the United States will not always agree, Panetta acknowledged. But he said the key to the relationship, as to any relationship, is open communications and the ability to express views candidly. “That, almost more than anything else, is what can lead to improved relations between the United States and China,” he said.
The “candid and frank discussions” he has had here bode well for the future, he added.
Concerning the U.S. rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said, Chinese leaders acknowledged that they don’t view it as a threat. “They viewed it as important to the future prosperity and security of the Pacific region,” he told reporters.
Their key concerns, he added, are that the United States develops and strengthens its presence in conjunction with developing a strong U.S.-China relationship, and that both nations work together to develop the capabilities of other countries and develop security for the region.