PENTAGON - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be in China next week, on a visit aimed at easing mutual suspicions that have risen during territorial disputes in the South China Sea and China's rapid military development.
Panetta visited with U.S. allies in Asia last June to strengthen partnerships as the Obama administration turns the military's focus to the Pacific following drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
China is embroiled in territorial disputes over the South China Sea with a number of neighboring countries, and has called for the United States not to get involved.
During a visit to Beijing this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington's stance is clear.
"The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims," said Clinton. "Our interest is in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce."
But the United States has expressed concern about rising tensions in the South China Sea and about China's establishment of a military garrison in Hainan province, an action that has drawn protests from neighboring Vietnam.
This visit is a chance for Panetta to allay the concerns of Beijing, which accuses Washington of working to contain China's influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
In Singapore last June, the defense secretary rejected that view.
"Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible with the development and growth of China," Panetta said.
Defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich, at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, says China's rapid development of its military arsenal raises concerns about possible Chinese expansionism.
"China was not under threat of aggression," said Krepinevich. "The U.S. had military dominance in the region after the Cold War and there was no attempt to contain China or threaten China. And so there is a lot of, I guess, concern over the fact that this military buildup does not seem to have been provoked. So if that is the case, then what is the objective here?"
China has been developing its long-range missile technology, something U.S. analysts say presents a potential threat to American bases in Guam and Okinawa. The new U.S. defense strategy includes shifting a majority of U.S. naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the next few years.