American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – Defense Secretary Leon E Panetta yesterday told traveling reporters about the importance of the three countries he’s going to visit: Japan, China and New Zealand.
This trip, Panetta said, offers “an opportunity to further advance our strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific.”
Panetta said the strategy calls for expanding the U.S. naval presence in the region, deepening military engagement with partners and allies, and establishing rotational troop deployments in areas throughout the Asia-Pacific as outlined in his speech at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore in June.
The U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy involves not just defense issues but diplomatic and economic concerns as well, he said.
“Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton … spent the last 10 days in the region,” the secretary said. Panetta noted that U.S. Pacific Command’s top officer, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, was in China in June and that Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter spent 10 days traveling in the Asia-Pacific region in July.
These visits, Panetta said, along with this current trip, bolster the U.S. position that rebalancing focus to the Asia-Pacific region ensures stability there.
The strategy “is really about maintaining and strengthening, not just our presence, but also … a system of rules and norms and institutions in Asia that have brought decades of security and prosperity” that allowed many nations to thrive, Panetta said.
The U.S. alliance with Japan, the first stop on this trip, is a cornerstone of regional security, Panetta said. Topics to be discussed with Japanese leaders, such as Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, include ballistic missile defense, relocating some U.S. Marines now in Okinawa to Guam and others to another more remote site on the island, and the roles, missions and capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces, the secretary said.
The “realignment roadmap” for U.S. Marines in Japan is an issue that has been under discussion between the two countries for many years, he noted.
“We have worked with them closely … and we were able to work out an agreement, and we are putting that into effect,” Panetta said.
“Japan is making new investments for the 21st century, as are we,” the secretary said. Japan’s “extremely cooperative” support to U.S. troop deployments to the Asia-Pacific in the region is significant, he said.
Panetta said he looks forward to the opportunity on his first visit to China as defense secretary to deepen American-Chinese military-to-military relations. He is scheduled to meet with China’s top military and civilian leaders including Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie.
“I recognize the challenges that we have in the relationship,” the secretary said. “But I think it is in both of our nations’ interest to work towards a healthy, stable, reliable and continuous military-to-military relationship.”
Regular senior leader visits between Beijing and Washington have led to important progress toward that goal, Panetta said, adding that he views his trip to China “as an opportunity to advance that relationship even further.”
Panetta acknowledged he expects the current territorial disputes over some islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region involving China, Japan, the Philippines and other Asia-Pacific nations will be part of the discussions. The secretary said he will continue to urge the U.S. policy of peaceful resolution for territorial disputes, in which the United States does not take sides.
Panetta said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has developed a code of conduct that can serve as the basis for a forum aimed at resolving such territorial disputes peacefully. Issues involving freedom of navigation and mineral or fishing rights may complicate resolution of the dispute over the islands, but Panetta said his central message is that all states involved should refrain from provocative actions.
“Countries are searching for resources; there’s going to be questions raised as to who has jurisdiction over these areas,” he said. “What we don’t want is any kind of provocative behavior resulting in conflict.”
The secretary added that issues involving nuclear proliferation, piracy, trade and humanitarian assistance are all areas in which the United States and China can work together.
That work, he said, can foster security in the Asia-Pacific and “enhance the ability of that region to really … prosper in the future.”
Panetta’s final stop will be New Zealand, where, he noted, his visit will be the first by a U.S. defense secretary in 30 years.
In his experience, the secretary said, New Zealand is “a very steadfast and a very valued partner to the United States. We deeply appreciate the role that they’ve played in Afghanistan, and the sacrifice that they’ve made.”
The recent deaths of New Zealand troops serving in Afghanistan is tragic, Panetta said. Yet, New Zealand remains “committed to a strong and continuing role in Afghanistan,” he added.
The secretary said his central purpose in traveling to New Zealand is “to see what opportunities exist to try to deepen our defense cooperation.”
Even as he sets out on a trip aimed at advancing the U.S. strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Panetta said, recent events “remind all of us of the need to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East as well.”
The United States has a robust troop presence in the region and has deployed more forces to a number of areas there to respond if the State Department requests defense assistance “to protect our personnel and American property,” Panetta said.
Panetta said Libyan authorities are making a strong effort “to respond to the crisis and deal with the issues involved” following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
The secretary said defense leaders remain concerned about al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and elsewhere, although any al-Qaida involvement in the Benghazi attack remains to be determined.
“We have to … go after al-Qaida wherever they are, and wherever they try to hide,” Panetta said. The terrorist group is still working to inspire violence and undermine stability, he said, and continues to represent a threat to the United States.
Panetta said he and other U.S. defense leaders have developed a strategy and budget that can address threats around the world while cutting spending by $487 billion over 10 years.
“We are able to respond to the threats that we confront, both in the Middle East and elsewhere,” he said. “Obviously, we continue to monitor … our resources and the costs involved, and to keep the Congress informed.”
DOD has “great support from Congress for the work that we’re doing,” Panetta said, “and I feel very confident we can respond to any contingency we face.”
The secretary noted that while some anti-American demonstrations continue in the Middle East, they seem to have leveled off.
“I suspect these demonstrations … are likely to continue over the next few days, if not longer,” Panetta said. His primary concern, he added, is to “make sure … our people are protected, and we don’t have a recurrence of what happened in Libya.”