Panetta Seeks to Reassure Allies and Defuse China Tension

Posted on September 15, 2012


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta leaves today on a mission to reassure China’s leaders that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia isn’t meant to provoke a confrontation over Beijing’s increasingly assertive posture toward its neighbors.

Panetta will visit China next week after stopping in Japan, a longtime U.S. ally in the Pacific. China, with the world’s second-biggest economy, is preparing for a leadership succession clouded by uncertainty over the whereabouts of Vice President Xi Jinping, who’s been in line to become the next president.

Chinese leaders worry that the administration’s plan to reinforce the U.S. military presence in Asia is aimed at curbing China’s influence and encouraging countries to stand up to Beijing, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. China’s claims to uninhabited islands and oil and natural gas fields in the East China and South China seas are disputed by nations including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“In China, they’re pretty stoked up, at a time when they’re going through a difficult succession, that the U.S. is piling on by exacerbating China’s tensions with its neighbors,” Lieberthal said in a phone interview. “They think it is purposeful and that’s what the U.S. means by rebalancing.”

The U.S. military’s global strategy, announced in January, will result in positioning about 60 percent of the Pentagon’s naval assets in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, up from about 50 percent now, Panetta told the region’s leaders in Singapore in June. As part of this “rebalancing,” the U.S. plans to redeploy military forces stationed in Japan to Guam and rotate a contingent of Marines through Australia, and probably also the Philippines.

‘Heated Rhetoric’

One of Panetta’s tasks in China, where Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie invited him, is to explain “what’s involved in rebalancing and try to take a little bit of air out of the heated rhetoric that’s increasingly characterizing the U.S.-China relationship,” Lieberthal said.

Asked if Panetta would see Xi, who canceled meetings this month with visitors including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Sept. 13 that the itinerary wasn’t yet confirmed. The Hong Kong Economic Times has reported that Xi had a minor injury and is likely to appear in public soon.

‘Hard-line Strategy’

In explaining U.S. strategy to his Chinese counterparts, Panetta must be careful not to appear to be placating China, as if its “emerging hard-line strategy” is paying off, said Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for New American Security, a policy center in Washington.

China appears to have abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Hide your strength; bide your time” and instead is taking a more assertive approach toward its neighbors over territorial claims, Cronin said.

China and Japan are deadlocked over ownership of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. On Sept. 13, China sent six government vessels near the islands into what Japan considers its territorial waters.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced this week that the country had bought the disputed islands from their private Japanese owner, a move China said it rejected.

The tension has led to Japanese citizens being attacked in parts of China, and also threatens the flow of Chinese tourists to Japan.

Cables Cut

In April, China clashed with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels last year cut the cables of a Vietnamese petroleum exploration ship.

Panetta will stop first in Japan to meet his counterpart Satoshi Morimoto and Foreign MinisterKoichiro Gemba. After China, Panetta will travel to New Zealand.

New Zealand, once a U.S. treaty ally along with Australia, no longer has such a relationship after the South Pacific nation passed legislation in 1985 banning nuclear-powered ships or nuclear-armed vessels from calling on its ports.

While U.S. officials have said their military rebalancing isn’t aimed at containing China, “the circle around China orchestrated by the U.S. seems to be tightening,” Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army wrote in a Sept. 13 opinion piece in the China Daily, a state-run newspaper. An illustration accompanying the article showed Uncle Sam pouring gasoline on a fire.

‘Aggressive Attitude’

The author wrote that the U.S. conducted a joint military exercise with the Philippines and encouraged Manila to take an “aggressive attitude” toward China during the two nations’ dispute over the Scarborough Shoals.

The U.S. also has held joint military exercises with Japan amid that country’s territorial dispute with China.

In March, China’s announced an 11.2 percent increase in its annual military budget to about 670 billion yuan ($106.4 billion). The Pentagon’s proposed 2013 budget is $525 billion.

China’s increase in military spending continues “more than two decades of sustained annual increases,” according to the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military.

“Analysis of 2000-2011 data indicates China’s officially disclosed military budget grew at an average of 11.8 percent per year in inflation-adjusted terms over the period,” according to the report prepared in May. The U.S. defense budget almost doubled in the decade ending 2010, fueled by spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nuclear Capability

Beyond Panetta’s challenge in explaining U.S. strategy, the “bigger issue is China’s growing nuclear capability,” said Larry Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed panel that examines China’s military capabilities. “The major strategic concern for the U.S. ought to be the increase in their ballistic missile force.”

China is developing a stealth jet fighter that was first tested when U.S. Defense SecretaryRobert Gates visited Beijing in January 2011. It also is building the DF-21 anti-ship missile.

From China’s perspective, a top concern is the U.S. missile-defense capability in the region, as well as joint development under way with Japan, said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

While relations with China demand attention, the U.S. should continue to tend to its long-standing ties with Japan, according to retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, a former U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

In discussing the rebalancing strategy with Japan, the U.S. must explain “what kind of Asia we want to see in the future,” Blair said.

New Generation

A new generation of Japanese is coming to power with a different view of China, said Blair, who also served as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002. The Japanese once had “tremendous sympathy for China” and provided significant aid to the country, “but all that is gone now, and China is seen as a potential rival and possibly a threat,” he said.

Panetta also has to reassure Japan that the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey aircraft being deployed to U.S. bases in Japan will be safe. The Pentagon has delayed flying the V-22 in Japan while it investigates two crashes involving the aircraft, which lifts off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.

Panetta will be the first U.S. defense secretary to visit New Zealand since Caspar Weinberger in the early 1980s. Panetta’s trip follows New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman’s visit to Washington in June.

Banned Ships

The increase in visits by U.S. officials to New Zealand “reflects American concern that China is gaining influence in the region, and the U.S. doesn’t want to cede that to China,” said Robert Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. The U.S. is seeking to “bolster relations with New Zealand and the South Pacific.”

New Zealand, which has a free-trade agreement with China, and has substantial economic ties with the country, would like to “maintain a positive relationship” with both the U.S. and China, Ayson said. “If the U.S. and China get into a tense situation, it’s bad for all of us.”


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