BEIJING - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will get a rare first-hand look at a Chinese naval base on Thursday, as Washington pushes security dialogue with a country that could rival US power in the Asia-Pacific.
Panetta was due to fly to the eastern port of Qingdao, home to the headquarters of the Chinese navy's northern fleet, and will become the first Pentagon chief to set foot in the facility.
Chinese officers have promised to give Panetta a tour of one of their newer frigates and diesel submarines, a day after he spoke to army cadets at an engineering academy in Beijing.
In his speech to cadets and young officers, Panetta sought to reassure them 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 said Wednesday.
"It's about creating a new model in the relationship of our two Pacific powers."
The Chinese navy's modernised ships and submarines are the subject of intense scrutiny by US military strategists, defence analysts and American lawmakers.
They are concerned about Beijing's increasing focus on precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles that could undermine US naval and air power in the Pacific.
China's expanding arsenal of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missiles could render an array of bases and aircraft carriers vulnerable in key waterways, Pentagon officials believe.
The growing rivalry with China is driving plans in Washington to fund stealth fighters and electronic jamming equipment.
But during his three-day visit, Panetta has adopted a conciliatory tone, offering to work with Beijing as a partner to address common threats such as natural disasters or piracy.