Pentagon chief skips Thailand
WASHINGTON : Defence Secretary Leon Panetta leaves Wednesday on his first visit to Asia since the Pentagon said in January it would "rebalance" military strategy toward a region President Barack Obama has called critical to US interests.
- Published: 30/05/2012 at 09:18 PM
- Newspaper section: breakingnews
Thailand is not on Panetta's official tour list, even though the country is, like the Philippines, designated a "Major Non-Nato Ally" of the United States.
Panetta's itinerary calls for him to meet Thai Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat at a security summit in Singapore late this week.
Panetta's challenge is to assure the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and other nations in the region that the US supports them while stopping short of confrontation with China, according to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will stop in Honolulu, headquarters of the US Pacific Command, before traveling to Singapore for an annual Asian security summit, followed by two-day visits to Vietnam and India. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
"He's walking a tightrope," Biddle said in an interview. Allies in the region want the US to serve as a counterweight as China becomes increasingly assertive in disputes over matters such as mineral rights in the South China Sea, he said. At the same time, those countries have close economic ties to China and don't want to "get into a conflict with the other major power in the region," Biddle said.
Panetta will stop in Honolulu, headquarters of the US Pacific Command, before traveling to Singapore for an annual Asian security summit, followed by two-day visits to Vietnam and India.
The trip will be the first opportunity for Panetta to explain fully how the US strategy will be applied in practice, according to defence officials who spoke to reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity because many of the consultations will be in private.
In January, the Pentagon released its strategic guidance that cited US economic and security interests extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia to the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. It said the US military will "rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region."
In the absence of clarity, the strategy may be seen as an effort to contain China, and such "a rivalry will increase friction and conflict," Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a conference in April in Washington.
Panetta, asked this month if the US strategy sought to contain China's rise, said the purpose is to "work with countries in that region to help develop their capabilities so that they can deal with the common challenges that both China and the United States face."
The Pentagon wants to work with China to establish a "constructive relationship," Panetta said May 7 in a joint press conference at the Pentagon with General Liang Guanglie, China's defence minister.
The US strategy was described as a "pivot to new realities" by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in a November article in "Foreign Policy" magazine that it began a long-term engagement with allies in the region.
Since then, US officials including Panetta have said the new strategy isn't a pivot away from concerns such as turmoil in the Middle East or from allies including the 27-state European Union.
"Enlightenment was advanced when administration leaders realized they had gratuitously offended European allies and gratuitously provided Beijing's hawks with ammunition to argue that America was formally and openly instituting a policy of containing China," Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, wrote in a May 20 article on the Daily Beast website.
Panetta will speak at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based policy group. During the two-day conference, Panetta also plans to meet with his counterparts from Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Vietnam, Brunei and India, the defence officials said Tuesday.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, are also among US defence leaders who will attend the Singapore meeting, the officials said.
In Vietnam, Panetta will meet with his counterpart, Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, to discuss implementing a defence memorandum of understanding the two countries signed last year, the defence officials said.
The agreement made in September calls for regular top-level meetings as well as cooperation on maritime security, search and rescue, peacekeeping activities and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Closer military relations between the two countries, including sales of equipment, are being held back because of US concerns about human-rights abuses in Vietnam, said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Last year, Vietnam convicted 33 bloggers and rights activists of crimes for expressing political and religious beliefs, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Jan. 11. Authorities arrested at least 27 other activists and held two in detention for more than a year without trial, the group said.
Improved military relations with the US would help Vietnam gain better understanding of events in the South China Sea, Hiebert said.
Vietnam and China have clashed over oil exploration rights in the sea. China's neighbors reject its map of the sea as a basis for oil and gas development.
Oil reserves in the South China Sea may be as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the US Energy Information Administration.
In India, Panetta plans to meet with officials led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister A.K. Antony, according to the Pentagon.
Panetta's goal in India is to find ways for more routine technical cooperation, the US defence officials said.
India is the only country mentioned as a partner in the Pentagon's January strategy document and is one of the biggest buyers of US weapons. US arms sales are a "big part" of US-India cooperation, Nancy Powell, the US ambassador to India said in a May 18 speech in New Delhi.
India may order as much as $8 billion in US military equipment, in addition to the $8 billion it already has acquired, said Karl Inderfurth, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
India also holds more joint military exercises annually with the US than any other nation, about 50 a year, Inderfurth said.
India has no intention of "putting all their defence eggs in one basket," said Inderfurth, who has served as the US assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "Indians have a view of strategic autonomy and have no desire to enter a pact with the US"
India has made clear to the US that it will not be part of any regional group or coalition aimed at containing China, Inderfurth said.
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