Xi canceled meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other foreign dignitaries without official explanation this month, fueling rumors about his status as China’s putative leader-in-waiting. He reappeared in public briefly Saturday during a visit to a Chinese university.
Speculation arose that he had been sidelined by a bad back or a bad heart at a time when China is preparing for a major once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Xi is expected to be named as China’s new president in coming weeks. Chinese authorities said Sunday that Xi would also appear at an expo attended by Southeast Asian leaders later this week.
Panetta arrived in Beijing on Monday for his first visit to China since taking over as Pentagon chief in July 2011. He was originally scheduled to spend two days in the country, but U.S. defense officials announced that he would extend his visit to a third day.
In addition to meeting Xi, Panetta is scheduled to visit a People’s Liberation Army naval base, give a speech to Chinese cadets and tour a submarine and frigate.
His arrival in China comes at a time of heightened security tensions in the region, as well as an ongoing effort by the Obama administration to reassert its strategic interests in Asia.
Earlier Monday, for example, the United States and Japan announced they will expand a shared missile defense system in East Asia by installing a new, high-powered radar in southern Japan.
During a joint news conference in Tokyo, Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said a joint U.S.-Japanese team would begin searching immediately for a site for the new radar, which would bolster one already in place in northern Japan, on the island of Hongshu.
U.S. and Japanese leaders say the missile shield is intended to defend against the threat of an attack by North Korea, which has developed a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and is seeking to extend the range of its long-range missiles so they could reach U.S. territory.
Although Washington and Tokyo have repeatedly denied that the missile defenses are designed to counter China, the developments have heightened suspicions in Beijing that a secondary aim of the program is to contain China’s growing military power in the region.
Panetta told reporters that there was no reason for the Chinese to think the radar would target them.
“It’s no secret that one of our concerns in this area is the ballistic missile threat from North Korea,” he said. “We have made these concerns very clear to the Chinese. We’ve also made clear that we’ll take steps to protect the United States and our allies from that threat.”