US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta left for Japan yesterday after telling regional allies gathered in Indonesia that Washington would remain a Pacific force despite budget cuts, while offering rare praise for China.
In a meeting with defense ministers from ASEAN, some of whose members have been locked in disputes with China over the resource-rich South China Sea, Panetta gave assurances that Washington’s firm commitment to the region would not falter.
“I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region,” Panetta told the ASEAN ministers at the meeting in Bali late on Sunday.
On the South China Sea disputes, Washington has called for a regional code of conduct and insisted on “freedom of navigation” through the crucial global shipping route despite Beijing’s territorial claims.
However, in rare praise for China, Panetta commended Beijing for what he said was a restrained response to Washington’s latest arms package for Taiwan announced last month.
“I guess I would commend them for the way that they’ve handled the news of that sale to Taiwan,” Panetta said.
China has condemned the US$5.85 billion US deal to upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of F16 aircraft. However, unlike over previous US sales to Taiwan, it has not so far cut off military contacts with Washington.
“My hope is to improve our military to military relationship with the Chinese,” Panetta said.
On his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, he told allies that budget cuts to trim the US deficit would not weaken Washington’s Pacific role.
“I know you have probably all been following the budget debate in the United States with keen interest and are questioning whether we will follow through on these commitments,” Panetta said in a speech to the ministers.
“Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia,” he said. “This commitment will not change.”
In a meeting early yesterday with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Panetta promised to help upgrade Jakarta’s own aging military hardware.
“Panetta promised that the US will help strengthen the TNI’s [Indonesian military’s] equipment and radar systems,” Indonesian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Hartind Asrin said.
The US is helping the Indonesians with a radar system to monitor the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and has been plagued with piracy.
Washington also has agreed to grant older 30 F16 aircraft to the Indonesian air force that are surplus to US requirements.
The US resumed military cooperation with Indonesia in July last year under Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, after more than a decade’s suspension since former Indonesian dictator Suharto was toppled in 1998.
Panetta said in Bali that Washington would continue to develop military ties with Indonesia, but keep a watchful eye on human rights abuses in the country, which is fighting separatist movements in regions, including Papua.
Panetta headed to Japan ahead of sensitive direct talks between the US and North Korea in Geneva, Switzerland.
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