Panetta meets with Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping

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BEIJING — Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met Wednesday with visiting Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta amid questions about whether he is still slated to become president after having canceled high-profile meetings with foreign dignitaries and dropped from public view for two weeks, raising questions about the communist government’s stability.

Mr. Xi had been scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this month during her visit to China, but canceled the meeting, citing back problems.

However, the 59-year-old appeared healthy when greeting Mr. Panetta Wednesday morning in Beijing. It was Mr. Xi’s second public appearance since Sept. 1, after having canceled four meetings with visiting officials, including one with Mrs. Clinton on Sept. 5.

“I believe that your visit will be very helpful in further advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relations between our two countries,” Mr. Xi told the defense secretary in public remarks before beginning a private meeting that lasted more than an hour.

Mr. Xi is scheduled to become the Communist Party’s leader next month and president next spring, succeeding President Hu Jintao. His disappearance before such a major political transition had baffled experts, and sparked discussion in Chinese Web forums and Western media about Mr. Xi’s political future.

A Sept. 15 Chinese Web forum titled “Where is the Chinese Vice President?” has since been taken down. Chinese state-run media outlets did not comment on Mr. Xi’s reappearance, and the Beijing government has not offered an explanation for his disappearance.

Mr. Xi’s absence followed a recent major political scandal in China earlier this year, involving popular politician Bo Xilai’s removal from an influential post as Communist Party chief in the Chongqing province in March, over allegations that his wife was involved in the killing of a British businessman — a scandal that Chinese officials said tainted the government.

“Following on the Bo Xilai scandal earlier this year, his absence is yet another unwelcome wrinkle in the leadership’s plans for a smooth succession at the 18th Party Congress this fall,” said Christopher K. Johnson, Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China program, wrote in a Sept. 14 article.

Mr. Johnson, a former CIA analyst on Asia, said Mr. Xi’s disappearance likely was a result of a health condition rather than a political scandal.

“Despite continuing rumors and some visible indications of intense political infighting behind the scenes tied to the succession, there is no reason to conclude that Xi’s accession has been derailed,” he wrote. “In the wake of the political intrigues surrounding the Bo Xilai affair, any dramatic shift in the carefully scripted leadership handoverwould be interpreted as a sign of persistent deep divisions within the leadership, an impression the Politburo is determined to avoid.”

China expert and George Washington University professor Robert Sutter said although Mr. Xi seems back to normal, if he drops from sight again, more serious questions will arise.

“The reason for his earlier two week absence remains as mystery, and adds an element of uncertainty to outsiders’ calculations on what China is likely to do and why it is likely to do it,” he said.

China may be stable but it acts in ways that make outsiders uncertain,” he said.

Such uncertainty could set off a demonstration of power, such as the waves of anti-Japanese protests against Japan, with whom China is currently involved in a territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea, he added.

“Under these circumstances, one can not be sure when events and what circumstances may set off another extraordinary Chinese demonstration of power, coercion and intimidation short of use of military force,” Mr. Sutter said. “The demonstrations, especially with Japan, go far beyond the international norms of peaceful handling disputes through dialogue that China repeatedly voices support for.”

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