BEIJING — A stronger U.S. military presence in the western Pacific will benefit the entire region, including China, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a speech Wednesday at a Chinese military academy.
In an auditorium packed with several hundred attentive officers and cadets at the Chinese army’s Engineering Academy of Armored Forces, he argued that the U.S. defense strategy, which calls for stationing more ships and planes in the region and building stronger alliances with Asia-Pacific nations, isn’t aimed at holding down a rising China.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,” he said. “It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific."
At a press conference later, Panetta said Chinese leaders he has met with on the trip seemed to generally accept the United States’ desire to be more involved in the region. While agreeing a U.S. presence helps regional stability, he said, they expressed concerns about too much U.S. military emphasis in the new strategy.
“No one mentioned the word ‘containment’ or that our efforts were aimed at China,” Panetta said. “At the same time, what they did raise were concerns about the military emphasis of our rebalancing to the Pacific.
“What they urged, and frankly, what we would agree with, is that it be a balanced approach.”
Panetta was on his second day of high-level meetings and military site visits. Earlier Wednesday, he met with likely Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, who appeared in public for the first time in weeks after an absence that fueled rumors of health problems and communist power struggles. On Thursday, the defense secretary was scheduled to fly to the coastal city of Tsingtao to tour the headquarters of the Chinese navy’s northern fleet before leaving for New Zealand, where he had official meetings scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
The Pacific-centric U.S. defense strategy introduced this year has been viewed in China as a means to counter a growing Chinese economic and military power, and to prevail in case of a conflict.
But Panetta said during the academy speech that the strategic shift could actually lead to closer ties between the countries if they begin to cooperate on mutual problems, including piracy, nuclear proliferation and natural disaster responses.
The rebalance encompasses the economic and diplomatic spheres as well as defense, and is ultimately necessary for the United States, Panetta said.
“We recognize that in the 21st century, America’s future security and prosperity will be linked to Asia more than any other region on Earth,” he said.
Panetta said the United States will continue to push for observance of a “rules-based order” emphasizing freedom of trade and navigation and peaceful settling of territorial disputes, including an emotional dispute between China and close U.S. ally Japan over a group of islands — Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese — that both nations claim as their own.
Japan’s purchase of some of the islands recently from private owners angered China, which sent military vessels to patrol nearby. Meanwhile, boisterous anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out across the country in recent days and U.S. ambassador Gary Locke’s car was surrounded and slightly damaged by protesters Tuesday.
An Asia expert said Panetta seems to have accomplished some of his goals of explaining the rebalance to leaders and allaying some fears — although some in China don’t seem eager to listen.
“The fact that protesters even harmed the U.S. ambassador’s car suggests that not everyone in China sees the United States’ intentions the same as Secretary Panetta,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.
Whether the apparent goodwill between Panetta and Chinese leadership translates into a smooth relationship as both countries build their military capabilities in the region remains to be seen, Cronin said.
“The trip,” he said, “continues stepped up U.S. engagement in the region, but it necessarily leaves behind a passel of long-term questions about the sustainability of American influence, the strength of U.S. alliances and partnerships, and the future of Sino-American relations.”