China’s anointed leader, Xi Jinping, reemerged from the shadows Wednesday as he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and smiled for the cameras, quelling speculation about his health and political status.

Xi is widely expected to be declared China’s new president next month, part of a once-in-a-decade revamping of the senior Communist Party leadership. But his unexplained cancellation of meetings with foreign dignitaries and disappearance from public view in recent weeks had triggered a frenzy of rumor and gossip.

The 59-year-old Xi offered a firm, prolonged handshake to Panetta in front of Western and Chinese journalists assembled inside an ornate reception room in the Great Hall of the People.The two leaders exchanged pleasantries for about five minutes before the media was ushered away.

“It is a great pleasure for me to meet you again, Secretary Panetta, and to welcome you to China,” Xi said in Chinese, appearing comfortable and at ease as he paced across the room in a dark suit and a light-blue tie.

“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to visit with you here,” Panetta, 74, replied with a broad smile. “I appreciate all of your support in encouraging better military-to-military relations between our two countries.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (L) shakes hands with China's Vice President Xi Jinping before meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sept. 19, 2012. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Xi was supposed to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this month but was a no-show; he also canceled meetings with three other foreign leaders. The Chinese government offered no official explanation for his withdrawal from the limelight.

U.S. diplomats said they were told privately by Chinese officials that Xi was hampered by a bad back.

Other rumors included speculation that Xi had suffered a heart attack, hurt himself playing sports or been the target of an assassination attempt.

On Saturday, Xi suddenly reappeared in public when he toured a Chinese university campus, looking very much alive and light on his feet.The visit was brief, however, and the state-run media distributed only two photographs of the event.

His meeting with Panetta was the first time in nearly three weeks that he had showed up for a scheduled, public event with journalists present.

Panetta is in the midst of a three-day visit to China, the first since he became defense secretary in July 2011.In February, Panetta hosted Xi on a visit to the Pentagon, replete with an honor guard. So failing to return the favor with a meeting in Beijing would have only fueled more questions about Xi’s condition.

The son of a revolutionary leader, Xi is being groomed to take over as China’s president from Hu Jintao as part of a broader reorganization of the Politburo Standing Committee, which runs the country.

Although China has sought to project an image of stability and order during the leadership transition, that script has been undermined by intra-party feuding, including a murder-and-corruption scandal involving another Politburo member, Bo Xilai.