Despite Washington's stance that the strategic shift in the US foreign policy is not targeted at Beijing, Panetta's plan to focus on the South China Sea dispute at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore -- known as an indispensable forum for Asian defense diplomacy -- has raised certain concerns among Chinese officials.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, when asked about Panetta's visit at a news briefing Thursday, said that China hoped the US would play a positive and constructive role in the region, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
We also hope the US will respect China's interests and concerns in the region,'' he added.
The US has reassured its allies that Washington would act to counterbalance China's growing influence on the South China Sea as part of its foreign policy known as the pivot to Asia policy that was developed in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Panetta will brief the Asian allies on the regional strategies and seek to allay fears that fiscal uncertainty could undermine Washington's commitment to the effort.
In his first trip to the region since the Pentagon issued its new strategic guidance in January, Panetta will seek to give a comprehensive account on how the changes would be brought into practice.
What we're trying to do with the swing through Asia is to give a comprehensive account to partners and everyone in the region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will mean in practice, an anonymous official was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The Pentagon is facing orders to cut down on spending by $487 billion over the next decade, raising concern among Asian allies on whether the US will be able to deliver what has been promised.
The US considers a modernized Chinese military a threat, and Panetta, while speaking at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis Tuesday, said that Washington must be prepared to confront any challenge, from China.
However, he maintained that developing better defense cooperation with China is important to sustain peace in the region.
China's Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun Thursday said that Beijing would send Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, vice-president of the PLA Academy of Military Science, to lead the Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La summit, which would be attended by defense ministers and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states.
China dismissed rumors that it deliberately lowered the ranking of the delegation, saying it followed normal arrangements, according to Xinhua.
Panetta's choice of words to address the territorial dispute in South China Sea, between China, the Philippines and Taiwan, claiming ownership of the Scarborough shoal, which is believed to be rich in energy resources, will be thoroughly scrutinized in Beijing due to concerns that the US seeks to contain China's rising global power.
The recent military drills in South China Sea, involving nearly 7,000 US and Philippine forces, close on the heels of a standoff triggered on April 10 between Manila and Beijing, escalated maritime tensions which led to a top military publication in China warning that the US might be risking an armed confrontation by undertaking joint military drills with the Philippines.
China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including what is recognized by the UN as the Exclusive Economic Zone of other neighbors, according to reports.
In an article published in November in the magazine Foreign Policy, titled America's Pacific Century, in November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the future of politics will be decided in Asia.
In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values, Clinton wrote. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region.