Panetta's challenge is to assure the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and other nations in the region that the U.S. supports them while stopping short of confrontation with China, according to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"He's walking a tightrope," Biddle said in an interview. Allies in the region want the United States to serve as a counterweight as China becomes increasingly assertive in disputes over matters such as mineral rights in the South China Sea, he said. At the same time, those countries have close economic ties to China and don't want to "get into a conflict with the other major power in the region," Biddle said.
Panetta arrived Wednesday in Honolulu, headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command. He will meet with troops Thursday before traveling on to Singapore for an annual Asian security summit, followed by two-day visits to Vietnam and India.
The trip will be the first opportunity for Panetta to explain fully how the U.S. strategy will be applied in practice, according to defense officials.
In January, the Pentagon released its strategic guidance that cited U.S. economic and security interests extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia to the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. It said the U.S. military will "rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region."
In the absence of clarity, the strategy may be seen as an effort to contain China, and such "a rivalry will increase friction and conflict," Singapore's Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a conference in April in Washington.
Panetta portrayed the strategy as one of both wariness toward China and collaboration in a speech Tuesday to graduating midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
"China's military is growing and modernizing," Panetta said. "We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to that region is going to be to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries, one in which our military shares security burdens in order to advance peace."
The U.S. strategy was described as a "pivot to new realities" by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in a November article in "Foreign Policy" magazine that it began a long-term engagement with allies in the region.
Since then, U.S. officials including Panetta have said the new strategy isn't a pivot away from concerns such as turmoil in the Middle East or from allies including the 27-state European Union.
"Enlightenment was advanced when administration leaders realized they had gratuitously offended European allies and gratuitously provided Beijing's hawks with ammunition to argue that America was formally and openly instituting a policy of containing China," Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, wrote in a May 20 article on the Daily Beast website.
Panetta will speak at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based policy group. During the two-day conference, Panetta also plans to meet with his counterparts from Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Vietnam, Brunei and India, the defense officials said.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, are also among U.S. defense leaders who will attend the Singapore meeting, the officials said.
In Vietnam, Panetta will meet with his counterpart, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, to discuss implementing a defense memorandum of understanding the two countries signed last year, the defense officials said.
The agreement made in September calls for regular top-level meetings as well as cooperation on maritime security, search and rescue, peacekeeping activities and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Closer military relations between the two countries, including sales of equipment, are being held back because of U.S. concerns about human-rights abuses in Vietnam, said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Last year, Vietnam convicted 33 bloggers and rights activists of crimes for expressing political and religious beliefs, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Jan. 11. Authorities arrested at least 27 other activists and held two in detention for more than a year without trial, the group said.
Improved military relations with the U.S. would help Vietnam gain better understanding of events in the South China Sea, Hiebert said.
Vietnam and China have clashed over oil exploration rights in the sea. China's neighbors reject its map of the sea as a basis for oil and gas development.
Oil reserves in the South China Sea may be as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In India, Panetta plans to meet with officials led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defense Minister A.K. Antony, according to the Pentagon.
Panetta's goal in India is to find ways for more routine technical cooperation, the U.S. defense officials said.
India is the only country mentioned as a partner in the Pentagon's January strategy document and is one of the biggest buyers of U.S. weapons. U.S. arms sales are a "big part" of U.S.-India cooperation, Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India said in a May 18 speech in New Delhi.
India may order as much as $8 billion in U.S. military equipment, in addition to the $8 billion it already has acquired, said Karl Inderfurth, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
India also holds more joint military exercises annually with the U.S. than any other nation, about 50 a year, Inderfurth said.
India has no intention of "putting all their defense eggs in one basket," said Inderfurth, who has served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "Indians have a view of strategic autonomy and have no desire to enter a pact with the U.S."
India has made clear to the U.S. that it will not be part of any regional group or coalition aimed at containing China, Inderfurth said.
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