- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta traveled to Asia this week, and his message to allies and adversaries - mainly China and North Korea - was clear: The United States is shifting its focus to the region and bolstering forces and alliances there.

“We are a Pacific nation. We will not only remain a Pacific power, but we will strengthen our presence in this area,” he told sailors aboard the USS Blue Ridge, command ship of the Navy’s storied 7th Fleet.

“We are here to stay, and that’s an important message to send to the region and to send to all of our allies.”

Mr. Panetta, however, made no mention during the trip so far that included stops in Indonesia, Japan and South Korea of the Pentagon’s new Air Sea Battle concept, an emerging strategy aimed at bolstering air forces for a future conflict with China.

The concept was approved by top generals and admirals last summer, but is being held up by the Pentagon and other Obama administration officials over concerns it will upset China, which aggressively lobbied Washington not to implement the new battle plan, according to defense officials.

In Tokyo, Mr. Panetta said during a news conference with Japan’s defense minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, that the U.S. military will strengthen its presence in the Pacific by realigning forces, boosting military exercises and training, and providing assistance to U.S. regional partners.

The military also is developing “enhanced capabilities” in the region,” he said. He did not provide specifics.

However, the U.S. government has been moving forces toward Asia for the past six years, including attack submarines, and plans to move a carrier strike force to either Hawaii or Guam. It is also bolstering alliances with Japan, Australia, India and others.

Mr. Panetta wrote an opinion article that appeared Monday in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that singled out China and North Korea as key regional challenges.

“China is rapidly modernizing its military, but with a troubling lack of transparency, coupled with increasingly assertive activity in the East and South China seas,” Mr. Panetta wrote.

Tensions have increased in the South China Sea in particular, where Beijing has claimed most of the resource-rich waters as its territory, despite conflicting claims by Vietnam, Philippines and others.

Chinese military officials have told their U.S. counterparts that the sea is “our driveway.”

On Japan, the United States’ closest Asian ally, Mr. Panetta said U.S. and Japanese forces are working to increase interoperability and building high-technology capabilities, such as advanced anti-missile interceptors. The Pentagon is also exploring joint space and cyberspace defenses with the Japanese, he said.

Mr. Panetta said in South Korea that the United States will continue to keep its nuclear “umbrella” over the nation to counter North Korea. He is scheduled to return to the United States on Friday.

John Tkacik, a former State Department official who specialized in Asia security issues, said the defense secretary’s comments were encouraging.

“It is reassuring to me that the Obama administration has shown a solid commitment with real continuity to rebuilding America’s security architecture in East Asia and the Pacific,” Mr. Tkacik said.

New U.S. doubts about the threat from China have been voiced since March 2010 by senior U.S. officials, along with a renewed commitment to U.S. partners in Asia and the Pacific, he said.

“The fact that Secretary Panetta is continuing to articulate those policies signals that it is a major substantive course change, and it seems to be one backed by meaningful new cooperation and presence there,” he said.

On China, Mr. Panetta told reporters in Bali, Indonesia. that it was a positive sign that China did not conduct a third cutoff of military relations after the Pentagon announced a $5.8 billion arms package for Taiwan.

“I guess I would commend them for the way that they’ve handled the news of that sale to Taiwan,” he said.

China’s state-controlled Global Times said in an editorial published Wednesday that Mr. Panetta “skipped” visiting China and noted the United States’ shift in focus to Asia.

China must “stay calm” despite feeling more pressure, the newspaper said.

“While others are increasingly plotting against us, their fears of a retaliation will grow, too,” it said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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