US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s week-long visit to the Asia-Pacific region helped deepen the US military’s strategic shift to the area, even as it illustrated the balancing role that Washington may have to play to maintain peace and stability in the area.
The trip, which concluded on Saturday, took Panetta to Japan, China and New Zealand and coincided with a flare-up in tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea. Anti-Japanese protests took place in dozens of cities across China while Panetta was in the region.
During his visit, Panetta announced a decision to put an additional missile defense radar in Japan to counter the threat from North Korea. He also said Washington had lifted a 26-year-old ban on visits to US military ports by New Zealand’s navy.
Both steps further the Pentagon’s goal of expanding the military capabilities of partners in the region as part of a shift in strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific announced earlier this year.
Panetta also helped secure a decision to permit flights of the Marine Corps’ tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey in Japan, a restriction that had been an irritant to US-Japanese relations and a hindrance to US efforts to restructure its presence in Japan.
However, in the days leading up to his visit, the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over an island grouping in the East China Sea forced its way high onto the agenda.
The dispute worries Washington because Japan is a treaty ally and the US could be pulled into the conflict should it disintegrate into violence, a point Panetta noted in his meetings with leaders in both countries. He reaffirmed the US’ commitment to its treaty obligations, but urged Japan and China to settle their differences diplomatically and peacefully, saying responsible leadership on both sides should avoid further inflaming the issue.
“It is in no country’s interest for this situation to escalate into conflict that would undermine peace and stability in this very important region,” Panetta told a news conference with Chinese Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie (梁光烈).
He pressed China to agree to a rules-based system, like one proposed by the ASEAN, to resolve territorial disputes in the China Sea between Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries.
It is not clear whether China is open to US suggestions on the issue. Analysts say Beijing is skeptical of US intentions and suspicious of its expanding military ties in the region.