BEIJING -- Tensions between China and the United States and its Asian allies escalated Monday as Beijing immediately criticized an announcement earlier in the day that the United States and Japan had reached a major agreement to deploy a second advanced missile-defense radar on Japanese territory.
The fresh conflicts, coming as China and Japan have been sparring over claims to disputed islands in the sea between them, emerged as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Beijing from Tokyo to meet this week with China's leadership, including Xi Jinping, expected to become the nation's next president.
The scheduling of Panetta's meeting with Xi was made public only as the defense secretary flew to Beijing. It suggests that Xi, currently serving as China's vice president, has made a recovery from whatever ailment -- physical or political -- had kept him from making public appearances for two weeks.
During a stopover in Tokyo before flying to China, Panetta praised the radar system as essential to enhancing how the U.S.-Japanese alliance can defend its people and territory from attack by North Korea -- and stressed that it was not aimed at China.
"The purpose of this is to enhance our ability to defend Japan," Panetta said at a news conference in Tokyo.
But Chinese observers reacted strongly, saying the system was also aimed at China, where officials fear that their relatively small nuclear deterrent could be greatly diminished
Although he has been in Asia for only two days, Panetta has been asked repeatedly about the sovereignty dispute -- and each time he responded that the United States was not taking sides in any of the region's territorial disagreements. Washington, he said, is advocating a diplomatic process to resolve the tensions peacefully.