By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
BEIJING, Sept. 19, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a group of Chinese officers and cadets today that the level of cooperation they and their U.S. counterparts achieve will determine much of the Asia-Pacific region’s future stability and prosperity.
“One day, it will be your responsibility to help carry the U.S.-China relationship forward,” he said.
The secretary delivered a speech to some 300 members of the People’s Liberation Army’s engineering academy here on the second full day of his three-day trip to China.
Panetta told them the meetings he has attended during his visit, including one earlier today with Vice President Xi Jinping, made clear that leaders of both countries are working to build “a sustained and substantive United States-China defense relationship that supports the broader United States-China cooperative partnership.”
That partnership began to take root in February 1972, he noted, when then-President Richard M. Nixon visited Beijing as the first U.S. head of state to visit the People’s Republic of China, established in 1949.
Panetta said one of his early U.S. government jobs was in Nixon’s administration. The president’s historic trip was known then as “the week that changed the world,” he added: “A week when our two countries cast aside decades of fear, division, and estrangement in favor of engagement.”
Chinese leaders’ reception of Nixon set the course for the current engagement between the United States and China on “a full range of diplomatic, economic, and security issues,” he said.
Now, he added, the relationship between the two major powers, the world’s two largest economies, will be essential for global security and prosperity in the 21st century.
Panetta cautioned that while he believes deeply that the U.S-China relationship holds long-term promise, “it is clear that this journey is not yet complete – particularly for our two militaries.”
In the security realm, suspicion and a “lack of strategic trust” often gain more attention than cooperation and engagement, the secretary said.
“In [the] spirit of building trust,” he said, “let me share with you today my thoughts on the role that the United States military wants to play in the Asia-Pacific region … [and] how a constructive U.S.-China defense relationship complements that vision.”
The United States’ strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region rests on the recognition that America’s security and prosperity in the 21st century “will be linked to the security and prosperity of Asia more than any other region on Earth,” he said. The economically dynamic region is of growing importance to U.S. diplomatic, economic, development and security interests, Panetta said, noting that it also faces clear threats that include terrorism, the prospect of natural disasters, maritime security issues, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, piracy and drug trafficking.”
In response to both opportunities and threats, the secretary said, the U.S. government is expanding trade and economic ties, increasing diplomatic engagement and developmental assistance, and rebalancing its military forces.
Despite U.S. defense budget cuts, the Defense Department will expand training and exercises with regional allies and partners, and will build new defense relationships with “a whole range of countries,” he said.
“We are also developing new approaches to military presence and posture across the Asia-Pacific region,” Panetta said. “[And] we are making investments in the capabilities we need to operate and partner effectively.”
As an example, he added, the United States is enhancing its ballistic missile defense capabilities in the region.
“Let me make clear that it is aimed solely at one threat: the threat from North Korea,” the secretary emphasized. “It is no secret that the United States is deeply concerned about the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles striking our allies, striking the United States, striking our forward-deployed forces [and] striking our homeland.”
North Korea has tested nuclear devices and continues to enrich uranium and test ballistic missiles, he noted. Ballistic missile defense systems, like the rebalancing effort itself, are designed to foster peace and sustain the region’s security and prosperity, Panetta said.
For more than 60 years, he said, America has fought to counter tyranny and support a system of rules, norms and institutions in Asia that underpinned the region’s transformation into the “economic powerhouse it represents today.”
As it rebalances to the region, the United States will continue to be guided by what Panetta called a basic set of principles, including:
-- Free and open commerce;
-- A just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities of nations and fidelity to the rule of law;
-- Open access by all to the shared domains of sea, air, space and cyberspace; and
-- Resolving disputes peacefully without coercion or the use of force.
Panetta said China’s rise as a major power “made it a key stakeholder in this system,” under which all Asia-Pacific nations can “work together to achieve common objectives – particularly in areas like maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and peacekeeping.”
Those opportunities won’t come to pass, he said, unless the U.S. and Chinese governments and militaries work together to seize them. “That is why I will continue to make it a priority for the Department of Defense to expand our defense dialogues, our defense exchanges with China,” he added.
Renewed senior-level engagement and military exchanges between the two nations have built momentum, Panetta said, noting that less than a week ago, U.S. and Chinese ships participated in a joint counterpiracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia.
“This is an area of strategic and economic priority to both of our countries, and both the United States and China benefit from ensuring the free flow of commerce through the gulf,” he added. The exercise allowed the two navies to increase their capacity to confront the threat of piracy and gave U.S. and Chinese sailors a chance to work alongside each other toward a common objective, he said.
“These kinds of opportunities are invaluable when it comes to building trust between our two militaries,” the secretary said. He added he has invited China to send a ship to participate in the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercise in 2014. RIMPAC is the world’s largest multilateral naval exercise, held every two years off Hawaii. This year’s exercise involved more than 20 nations’ navies.
Panetta said he is committed to identifying additional opportunities for Chinese participation in multilateral exercises in pursuing the goal of building a military-to-military relationship between the two nations that is healthy, stable, reliable, continuous and transparent.
Some see the U.S. focus on the Pacific “in terms of a zero-sum game, where China’s rise will inevitably put it into conflict with the United States,” the secretary said, but Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama have rejected that view. “It is not what our new defense strategy is all about,” he added.
The rebalance is an attempt not to contain China, but to engage it and expand its role in the Pacific, Panetta told the Chinese officers and cadets. Like many Americans, he added, he admires China’s transformation over the past decades.
“China’s rise has brought millions out of poverty and helped to make the world a more prosperous place,” he said. “I believe that it can also make the world a more secure place, if we work together … to build an enduring foundation for military-to-military relations between the United States and China.”
Both nations’ people can create opportunities today as they did 40 years ago, the secretary said, to move toward more cooperation and “a better and safer future for our children.”
Panetta is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the academy, and he thanked the school’s leaders for their hospitality during his visit. The secretary traveled to Japan before arriving in China, and will end his trip later this week with a stop in New Zealand.