The Cable

Will Panetta give any new details on the American pivot to Asia?

Singapore – When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Saturday morning at the 2012 Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the crowd will be hoping he puts some more meat on the bone in explaining the U.S. military rebalancing toward Asia. Speaking to reporters on his plane after leaving Hawaii, Panetta previewed his remarks in Singapore and explained the ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages
JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

Singapore – When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Saturday morning at the 2012 Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the crowd will be hoping he puts some more meat on the bone in explaining the U.S. military rebalancing toward Asia.

Speaking to reporters on his plane after leaving Hawaii, Panetta previewed his remarks in Singapore and explained the purpose of his cross-Asia journey, which will also include stops in Vietnam and India. But he stopped short of making or promising any news on how the U.S. shift to Asia will be implemented and whether or not there is concrete action to match the flowery rhetoric.

"Look, obviously, the purpose of this trip is to define the new defense strategy for the region and particularly the emphasis on the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region," Panetta said. "In Singapore I’m going to be talking to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue and there I’ll again define the Asia-Pacific rebalance and our new strategy. And I’ll also engage in a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings to listen to them, to listen to their thoughts, but also to define for them what our new strategy is all about."

Here on the ground in Singapore, there’s already a lot of anticipation over what new information, if any, Panetta will divulge. In an article Wednesday for Foreign Policy, former NSC Asia official Mike Green wrote that the Shangri-la attendees will be disappointed if Panetta just repeats the same commitments to increase America’s presence in Asia without explaining exactly what that will look like and whether the U.S. is willing to pay for it.

"It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn’t established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy," wrote Green.

On the plane, Panetta reiterated the four basic principles that underpin the U.S. engagement strategy, namely to promote a rules-based regional order, to build stronger regional partnerships, including with China, to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Asia, and to strengthen U.S. power projection in the region. But the details of each pillar were sketchy.

For example, with regard to strengthening the U.S. presence in Asia, Panetta said, "We want to do that through a key element of our new strategy which is developing these innovative rotational exchanges and deployments that we’ve already begun to do in Australia, that we’re working on in the Philippines, and that we’re working on elsewhere as well. And also to obviously build on our key alliances and partnerships in the region. "

The Australia deployments were actually announced at last year’s Shangri-la dialogue by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and no concrete plan for new deployments is expected this weekend. One reporter tried to get Panetta to name any other country where rotational deployments might be used, but Panetta declined to specify.

Regarding U.S. power projection, Panetta said, "We’re going to be having a higher proportion of our forces that will be located in the Asia-Pacific." Of course, the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Europe and the Middle East, so a "higher proportion" doesn’t actually mean any new U.S. forces for the Asia-Pacific region.

"We want to develop some new platforms for the kind of operations that I talked about in that region as well," Panetta continued. "And we want to obviously continue to invest in new technologies that will help us build a stronger power projection in the region as well."

One reporter asked Panetta directly if he will announce any details on increased military cooperation with Asia allies. Panetta responded by saying he will be in a listening mode.

"One of the things I hope to do in this process is not just to talk to them, but to listen to their needs as well. And, you know, I think we have a number of capabilities that we can bring to bear here. We can obviously provide advice. We can provide assistance. We can provide technological help. We can provide weaponry that is necessary. So I’m going to be listening to all of these countries and listen to what kind of assistance makes sense in developing that partnership relationship," he said.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking to American Forces Press Service on his own plane ride to Singapore, said he is also planning on doing a lot of "listening" at the conference and during his many bilateral meetings.

"What I already know is that we’ve been very clear about the need for cooperation in the maritime domain [involving] freedom of navigation," he said. "I think that’s exactly the right position to place ourselves. But beyond that, I want to hear what these 27 nations [at the Shangri-La Dialogue] have to say, both to us and to each other — because it will clearly be one of the most prominent issues."

There’s a lot of writing in the Chinese media this week that the Shangri-la dialogue will be a forum to gang up on China, especially when it comes to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. The People’s Daily had a front page commentary this week that railed against U.S. interceding in that dispute.

"Issues that arise from the South China Sea need to be solved through negotiations by China with the claimants," states the commentary said. "Intervention by external sources will only make existing contradictions more complicated and sharpen conflicts further, especially when a force of hegemony intervenes."

But if China is left out of the discussions on regional security this weekend, that is at least partially due to the fact that they have significantly downgraded their representation at the conference. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie decided not to return this year, perhaps to avoid another set of tough questions from your humble Cable guy.

"Liang Guanglie is a no-show in Singapore this year. The Defence Minister preferred to talk to his ASEAN counterparts in Cambodia, where he could express China’s displeasure at recent events in the South China Sea in bilateral meetings – especially in the two-way with the Philippines," reads a commentary on the Interpreter, a blog of Australia’s Lowy Institute.

"Shangri-La shouldn’t discomfort Beijing too much. Ministers don’t have to announce anything nor issue a formal concluding statement. This is the summit that makes a virtue out of not having official achievements."

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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