US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is traveling through Asia this week, determined to show that the US is serious about shifting its focus to the region, amid growing worries about China’s increasingly aggressive posture and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In a series of meetings at a Singapore conference and in a major speech today, Panetta is expected to lay out more details of the US’ plans to increase the number of US troops and military equipment in the Asia-Pacific.
He would not describe the US military assets — ships, aircraft, radars or other high-tech systems — that the country is willing to devote to the region. However, he told reporters traveling with him to Singapore on Thursday that the US can provide weapons, technological assistance, and other aid to the countries based on their individual needs.
However, the conference may be somewhat diminished by the absence of key Chinese leaders, particularly following recent regional meetings where they asserted stronger claims to the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan.
Senior US officials routinely insist that the Pentagon’s plans to beef up its presence and activities in the Asia-Pacific are not targeting one specific country. However, those claims are belied by the US’ unease at China’s growing dominance and its dramatic yet unexplained increases in military spending.
Tensions between the US and China have ebbed and flowed. Beijing has cut off communications in the past over US aid to Taiwan and there are repeated disagreements over Beijing’s claim to control waters the US considers international.
Yet, Panetta offered an optimistic view of US relations with China, perhaps signaling that Washington wants to scale back its criticism of Beijing in the hopes of forging stronger ties with the economic giant.
“I’m much more hopeful based on meetings that I had with the Chinese leadership, based on the follow-through that we’ve had as a result of those meetings,” Panetta said. “Like every relationship, ultimately it has to be based on an element of trust.
This is Panetta’s first trip to Singapore to attend the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a prominent defense conference.
He will be trying to counter suspicions that the Pentagon’s much-touted shift to the Pacific region is more talk than action, and assure his audience that the budget cuts the Pentagon faces will not derail the effort. He also said he will stress that the change is not just about military presence, but includes efforts to build better economic and diplomatic relations.
However, Panetta warned on Thursday that if a deeply divided US Congress cannot reach an agreement on the budget and the Pentagon is forced to absorb as much as US$1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, the plans could collapse.
“I think we’d probably have to be in a situation where we’d have to throw that strategy out the window,” Panetta said.
Panetta is also expected to talk to Asian leaders about North Korea, and its recent provocative behavior, including the failed launch of a satellite in mid-April.
Pyongyang has vowed to push ahead with its nuclear program despite opposition and recent satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may be upgrading a launch site to handle larger rockets.
Singapore is the first stop of a nine-day overseas trip that will include visits to Vietnam and India.