Secretary Panetta is latest top American leader to use a trip to Asia to reassure U.S. allies that the American military presence across the Western Pacific is there to stay. He told the defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and later reporters, that no matter what happens to U.S. military power overall through the big crunch, America is locked into its Pacific presence.
"First, I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region," he said. "I know that you have heard this message before, but it bears repeating. This has been a consistent priority for the Obama administration, for my predecessor Secretary Gates, and a commitment that I personally take very seriously."
Calling himself a son of the Pacific coast, Panetta said the U.S. will support freedom of navigation in the region and "a maritime code of conduct," in hopes that it'll prevent conflicts with an increasingly aggressive China, wrote Stripes' Chris Carroll. Overall, Panetta reassured the Asian allies that the U.S. was in this thing for the long run. Wrote Carroll:
Despite some pugnacious initial talk, he said, China’s reaction to recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan has been commendably measured – something that augers well for improved U.S.-China relations.Nothing shocking here: It would've been a surprise to hear him say, "Well, we're broke, so we're pulling back the 7th Fleet -- you're on your own, guys!" Still, people like to hear what they like to hear, and as the neighbor nations worry about China's territorial claims to the South China Sea, they may feel better knowing they can count on Uncle Sam being in their corner.
Asian allies have expressed concerns that looming Pentagon budget cuts would result in force reductions and a decreased scope of American power in Asia, Panetta said. But the region is too important to U.S. security to downgrade, he said.
Panetta met late Sunday with defense ministers from 10 nations at a meeting of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to discuss regional issues including disaster relief, nuclear nonproliferation and freedom of navigation on the seas.
“I’ve made clear that even with the budget constraints that we are facing in the United States… that there is no question in discussions within the Pentagon and discussions with the White House that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America,” he said.
The question is, will that sway Chinese leaders when it comes time to challenge their claim that they own almost all the water from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur?