American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2012 – In a message to the men and women of the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta shared his perspectives from his recent trip to the Asia-Pacific region.
Here is the secretary’s message:
This week I returned from a week-long trip to Japan, China, and New Zealand, my third trip to the Asia-Pacific region as Secretary of Defense.
The underlying purpose of the trip was to support our new defense strategy, which calls for the Department of Defense to increase our focus on the Asia-Pacific region. This strategy is part of a government-wide effort that includes increased economic, diplomatic, development, and security efforts – all in order to renew and revitalize America’s role in a region that is becoming more critical to our future security and prosperity.
My first stop was Tokyo, a city that I have visited a number of times in previous capacities, and on my first trip to Asia as Secretary of Defense last year. I am always appreciative of the warm hospitality and genuine friendship that the people of Japan extend to me and all their American visitors. It reflects the fact that Japan is a very close ally in the region, and that our Alliance has served as the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific for more than 50 years.
This trip took place during a time of increased tensions between China and Japan over competing claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – an episode that serves as a reminder of the important role the United States military continues to play in ensuring peace and security in the region. My message to the Government of Japan, which I would later repeat in China, was simple: the United States doesn’t take a position on competing sovereignty claims but we urge both sides to exercise calm and restraint, and we have an interest in seeing this dispute resolved peacefully and through diplomatic means.
While in Japan, I had very productive meetings with Foreign Minister Gemba and Defense Minister Morimoto that allowed us to make progress on two key issues for our Alliance. First, we agreed to pursue an additional ballistic missile defense radar, directed at protecting the people of Japan, U.S. forward-deployed forces, and the U.S. homeland, from the North Korean missile threat. Second, we set the stage for an agreement, announced later in the week that reconfirmed the safety of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft, enabled the commencement of flight operations, and paved the way for the deployment of the aircraft to in Okinawa. The Osprey is an important new capability that will greatly enhance our ability to defend Japan and respond to crises in the region – with twice the speed, three times the payload, and four times the range of the platform it replaces.
Before departing Tokyo, I had the opportunity to visit with several hundred American service members stationed at Yokota Air Base – a critical hub for our activities in the region. I had the chance to describe our new defense strategy and point out that the key to our strength rests with them – the men and women in uniform serving our Nation. It’s always a highlight for me to have the opportunity to interact with service members wherever I travel in the world.
My next stop was Beijing, a visit that marked my first trip to China as Secretary of Defense. The goal of this visit was to build on the progress we have made toward establishing a military-to-military relationship with China that is healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous. Our two nations have had a series of high-level interactions this year – from the visit of Vice President Xi to the Pentagon earlier in the year to General Liang’s visit in May – that have helped to build sustained and substantive interactions between our leaders. My visit continued this trend. One of the highlights was an elaborate welcome banquet General Liang hosted in my honor at the State Guest House in Beijing, which even included a magic show and a few hundred toasts that we all survived.
In my discussions with key military and civilian leaders, the thing that most impressed me is that we are building the kind of relationship where we can talk openly and candidly about our disagreements. At the same time, we are increasingly able to identify areas where our militaries can cooperate more – such as counterpiracy and maritime security, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and peacekeeping operations. In that spirit, I invited China to send a ship to RIMPAC 2014 – the world’s largest multilateral Naval exercise.
I was also encouraged by my interactions with young officers and cadets at the Engineering Academy of PLA Armored Forces, where I gave a speech focusing on the United States rebalance to Asia-Pacific region and had the opportunity to join students for lunch in the cafeteria. The questions that I got from the young cadets were candid and thoughtful, and it was clear that they appreciated my message that a stronger defense relationship between the U.S. and China is critically important to security and prosperity in the 21st century.
On my third and final day in China, I was able to fly to the coastal city of Qingdao and visit the headquarters of the North Sea fleet. There, I toured a PLA frigate and a diesel powered submarine. I was impressed with the professionalism and discipline of the PLA sailors, and it is clear that they are working to modernize their military. Throughout my visit, I stressed the importance of increasing their transparency as they undergo this modernization, so it was a positive step for me to be given a tour of these ships.
From Qingdao, we boarded our plane for the final time in China and took an overnight flight down to Auckland, New Zealand, the final stop on this trip.
It was the first visit I’ve ever made to New Zealand, and I was struck by the similarities in landscape between Auckland and my native Northern California. It was a special honor to be in Auckland because I was the first United States Secretary of Defense to visit New Zealand in 30 years.
Soon after I arrived, New Zealand’s Defence Forces hosted a welcome ceremony for me that befitted the historic nature of this visit. During the ceremony, a group of Maori tribesman approached me with a ceremonial challenge. My job was to pick up a dagger while not smiling and maintaining eye contact in order to signal that I came in peace. Luckily, I passed the test.
My broader purpose in traveling to New Zealand was first and foremost to recognize that New Zealand has been a stalwart friend over the past decade of war. In Afghanistan, New Zealand has made a variety of contributions to the war effort and continues to lead the Bamiyan provincial reconstruction team. During my visit, I paid tribute to New Zealand’s war heroes at their National War Memorial Museum, and I had the opportunity to recognize five individual soldiers from the New Zealand Defence Forces with Army Commendation Medals.
New Zealand also plays an important role as a provider of security in the South Pacific, and as the United States rebalances to the Asia-Pacific region we are looking for new ways to partner together to enhance regional security. To that end, I was pleased to be able to announce while in New Zealand that the U.S. government is changing some policies that govern interactions with New Zealand’s military, which were put into effect after New Zealand passed nuclear-free legislation in the mid-1980s. Specifically, we have eliminated restrictions on discussions and exercises between our two militaries, and we have established a mechanism to authorize individual visits by ships of New Zealand’s Royal Navy to U.S. military and coast guard facilities, both in the United States and around the world.
These changes sent a strong signal that we are entering into a new era of defense cooperation with New Zealand. More broadly, my entire week-long trip sent the message that the United States is following through with our strategy to rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region. Throughout the week, it was heartening to hear Allies, friends and partners in the region welcome the Department’s renewed focus on Asia-Pacific. The high regard they have for the U.S. military is a reflection of the dedication and professionalism of all our men and women in uniform, and the civilians who support them. I am proud of what we have accomplished together and grateful for your continued service to a strong and secure America.