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US defense chief visits Chinese naval vessels

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reviews a naval honor guard at Qingdao, China before touring Chinese naval vessels of the North Sea Fleet Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Photo: AP

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta became the first Pentagon chief to visit a Chinese naval base on Thursday after a tour of two Chinese vessels.

On the last stop of his three-day visit to China, Panetta had a first-hand look at the frigate Yantai, which recently returned from a counter-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden, and the Great Wall 197, a conventionally powered submarine, at the home to the headquarter of the People’s Liberation Army’s North Sea Fleet situated in the eastern port of Qingdao.

Panetta’s trip to China, representing the joint efforts by U.S. and China to promote closer military relations and greater transparency between the two sides, is made at the invitation of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who visited the Pentagon and military installations in other parts of the U.S. in May.

Chinese Vice President, Xi Jinping, met with Panetta on Wednesday when Xi said Japan's "purchase" of the Diaoyu Islands was a farce and urged Japan to stop any behavior that infringes upon China's sovereignty.

"Japan should rein in its behavior and stop any words and acts that undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xi added.

On the same day, Panetta gave a speech to cadets and young officers at a Chinese military engineering academy, in which he tried to reassure the Chinese that the US strategic tilt to the Pacific was not to curtail China's power but an effort to promote stability in an area vital to the global economy.

"Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China. It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific," Panetta told his listeners.

On his first trip to China as defense chief, Panetta made the visit at a delicate time when tensions between China and Japan are soaring over the Daioyu Islands in the East China Sea.

The next stop for Panetta is New Zealand, where he will meet with the Pacific nation's defense minister.

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