Panetta’s Asia-Pacific trip aids strategic pivot

Panetta’s Asia-Pacific trip aids strategic pivot

Expert says regional tensions give US excuse to intervene in region

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s week-long visit to the Asia-Pacific region helped boost Washington’s partners’ military capabilities as part of a strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, analysts said.

The trip, which concluded on Saturday, took Panetta to Japan, China and New Zealand.

It was his first visit to China and third trip to Asia since taking office in July 2011. He also became the first Pentagon chief to visit New Zealand since 1982.

The recent spate of visits by senior Washington officials to the Asia-Pacific, including Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, underlined the growing attention the US is paying toward the region as it pulls out of the Middle East, said analysts.

In Beijing, Panetta said the United States would play a constructive role in the Asia-Pacific region through strengthening cooperation and helping some countries to build up their defense capability, instead of establishing military bases.

During his visit to Japan, Tokyo and Washington agreed to install a second missile-defense radar system, and the MV-22 Osprey military aircraft was given the go-ahead to begin flight operations in Japan on Wednesday.

Panetta’s calls for improved military ties and cooperation with China and New Zealand were welcomed, but concern remains about its shift in strategic focus to the region.

In Beijing, Panetta conducted “candid and frank discussions” with several senior officials, including Vice-President Xi Jinping.

Most meetings ran longer than scheduled as the two sides explored topics ranging from Taiwan to cyberspace, while the overarching topic was US-China relations in the context of the US strategic re-balance to the Asia-Pacific region.

On Friday, Panetta announced Washington had lifted a 26-year-old ban on visits to US military ports by New Zealand’s navy, but Wellington said it had no intention of reciprocating by allowing US ships to visit its bases.

New Zealand has a small military, and the rapprochement is unlikely to tilt the regional balance of power.

But the opportunity to rub noses was eagerly accepted by the Obama administration, which has been working feverishly to shower attention on just about every country with a Pacific coastline to counter China’s rising influence in the region, said the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the US defense budget crunch will force the US navy and marine corps to lean on regional partners to establish a constant presence in the Pacific, according to the US magazine National Defense .

Panetta’s trip also coincided with escalating tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo’s “purchase” of the islands, which have belonged to China since ancient times, has triggered protests across China.

Li Haidong, a professor from the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, said Panetta’s visit to Japan amid the tension showed the US was accelerating its shift of strategic focus though a closer US-Japan alliance.

Days after Panetta urged both China and Japan to show restraint, Japan and the US on Saturday started an amphibious assault drill based on the scenario of retaking an island occupied by enemy forces.

Regional tensions give the US an excuse to intervene in the region, said Ruan Zongze, an international affairs expert with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

He said the US will still use other excuses to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by creating regional tensions.

“What it has done with the Philippines is one example,” he said. China and the Philippines have overlapping claims over the South China Sea.

Washington used to press China to agree to some rules-based system to solve the South China Sea issue, but in September, two US submarines arrived at the Philippine Subic Bay.

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Reuters contributed to this story.

LINK to China Daily (China Daily 09/24/2012 page12)

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