Panetta tours Asia to advance ‘pivot’ by Pentagon to Pacific region

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TOKYO | Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has traveled to Asia to “rebalance” the U.S. military’s focus on the Pacific region, which includes shifting much of its naval fleet, expanding joint exercises with regional allies, and deploying forces to Australia and Southeast Asia.

“The rebalance is really about maintaining and strengthening not just our presence, but also maintaining and strengthening a system of rules and institutions in Asia that have brought decades of security and prosperity to the region, and have allowed many nations to thrive,” Mr. Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Japan.

He will meet with officials in Japan and New Zealand, as well as Chinese leaders to try to convince them that the Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” does not seek to contain China’s rising power.

“The purpose is to deepen our [military-to-military] relationship and engagement, and talk about the rebalance with my Chinese counterparts, recognize the challenges that we have in the relationship, recognize often times the differences that we may have, but I think it is in both our nations’ interest to work toward a healthy, stable, reliable and continuous military-to-military relationship,” Mr. Panetta said.

It’s a delicate balance the secretary has to strike amid heightened tensions between China and Japan over Japan’s purchase last week of a group of islands from a private owner that the Chinese also claim is theirs.

The trip was not timed to coincide with the dispute, which likely will be one of many topics of discussion during Mr. Panetta’s 10-day visit to the three countries.

“As you know, the United States does not take a position with regard to territorial disputes, but we do urge not just China but the other countries that are involved to engage in a process in which they can peacefully resolve these issues,” Mr. Panetta said.

It will be Mr. Panetta’s first visit to China as defense secretary and follows Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie’s visit to the Pentagon in May.  

This is Mr. Panetta’s third trip to the region in less than a year, illustrating the region’s growing importance to the U.S. The new defense strategy unveiled early this year emphasized the need to rebalance its focus and resources to the Asia-Pacific region, where China is rapidly building its military capabilities and becoming more aggressive in defending territorial claims.

“The United States recognizes that the Asia-Pacific region is becoming more important in our economic and diplomatic and security interests,” the Pentagon chief said.

Mr. Panetta arrived in Japan on Sunday, and met with Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba Koichi and his counterpart, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, and visited with about 350 U.S. personnel serving at the Yokota Air Base.

The next stop is Beijing on Monday, where he will spend three days, meeting with Gen. Guanglie as well as other senior military and civilian officials, and visit the army’s Armored Engineering Academy and meet midgrade and junior officers.

The defense secretary will make his final stop in Auckland, New Zealand, on Thursday, where he will meet with Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman, Foreign Minister Murry McCully, and lay a wreath at the World War II Hall of Memories to honor troops who died in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force there.

It will mark the first visit to New Zealand by a U.S. defense secretary since 1982, and follows Mr. Coleman’s visit to Washington in June, where he and Mr. Panetta signed a framework for expanding bilateral defense cooperation.

“They are, in my experience, a very steadfast and a very valued partner to the United States, and we deeply appreciate the role that they’ve played in Afghanistan and the sacrifices that they’ve made,” Mr. Panetta said of New Zealand’s troops. “They’ve had some recent deaths that have taken place there.”

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