Then-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta addresses an audience during a ceremony in the Pentagon on June 25, 2012.

Then-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta addresses an audience during a ceremony in the Pentagon on June 25, 2012. (Chad McNeeley/Defense Department)

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta leaves Saturday for his third trip in less than a year to the Asia-Pacific region, an area of increasing military focus for the United States even as war and unrest continue to boil in the Middle East.

Panetta will first stop in Japan, defense officials said this week, followed by visits to China and New Zealand.

He'll arrive amid tension over competing territorial claims to a tiny group of islands. Japan, a close U.S. ally, and China are contending over a set of islands - known by Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu Islands - in the East China Sea. Japan recently bought the islands from private owners, but China also claims ownership and sent warships to patrol the waters near them.

The dispute underscores the delicate nature of Panetta's mission to Asia, during which he seeks to shore up U.S. influence in a region where China is increasingly flexing its economic and military muscles. Panetta also aims to reassure Chinese leaders that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not aimed at suppressing China or encircling it with hostile U.S. allies.

Panetta's stop in Beijing, the focal point of his trip, is his first visit to the rising global power as defense secretary. Chinese National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited the United States in May and invited Panetta to a meet him in China. The planned itinerary includes an address by Panetta to junior officers at China's Armored Engineering Academy in Beijing.

"The visit provides an opportunity to deepen the military-to- military engagements between China and the United States," Pentagon press secretary George Little said Thursday. "The United States and China continue to work together to establish healthy, stable, reliable and continuous military-to-military ties."

In meetings with Chinese officials, Panetta will focus on U.S. priorities including freedom of trade in the region and free navigation of international waters in the South China Sea and elsewhere, a senior defense official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"We will not achieve security and prosperity in the 21st century without a constructive U.S.-China relationship, including a stronger military to military relationship," the official said.

In Japan, the topic of stationing Marine V-22 aircraft on Okinawa could arise in talks between Panetta and Japanese defense minister Satoshi Morimoto. The plan has spurred mass protests in recent days, but neither the Pentagon nor the Japanese government are wavering on plans to deploy the aircraft, Little said.

During a final stop in New Zealand, Panetta will lay a wreath at a memorial to the country's veterans of World War II, as well as commemorating the sacrifices of New Zealand troop in recent wars, Little said.

In June, the United States and New Zealand signed the Washington Declaration, which includescharting a course for closer bilateral defense cooperation.

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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