Washington's Asia Pivot Gains Momentum
WASHINGTON, 8 Jun (IPS) -
The much-anticipated U.S. "pivot" from the Greater Middle East to the Asia/Pacific accelerated this week, which began with Pentagon chief Leon Panetta's high-profile, nine-day swing through the region and ended with a White House summit between Barack Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
For the first time, Panetta put some meat on the bones of the promised military "rebalancing" - the new phrase favoured by the administration - by declaring at a major regional military meeting in Singapore that the U.S. Navy will deploy 60 percent of its global forces, including six aircraft carrier battle groups, to the Asia/Pacific region by 2020, as compared to the current 50 percent.
In addition, Washington intends to increase the number and size of its military exercises and port visits to friendly countries in the region, according to Panetta.
"Make no mistake – in a steady, deliberate, and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and bringing an enhanced capability to this vital region," he declared. "We were there then, we are here now, and we will be here for the future."
True to his word, Panetta concluded an agreement in principle with Singapore to deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) within the city-state's territorial waters and then travelled on to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, the port through which most of the more than two million U.S. servicemen and women entered the country during the Vietnam War.
While Hanoi has permitted the Navy to dock ships for repairs and maintenance at Cam Ranh Bay for several years, Panetta's visit there was the first by a U.S. defence secretary in four decades.
"It will be particularly important to work with partners like Vietnam to use harbours like this as we move our ships from our ports on the west coast to our stations here in the Pacific," Panetta said as he inspected a Navy supply ship that was anchored in the deep-water bay.
His presence, according to the Washington Post, was "intended to highlight a deepening partnership between the United States and its former foe as both seek to counter the growing influence and military assertiveness of China."
Panetta's visit to Cam Ranh Bay was not only the event this week that evoked fond memories of Washington's post-World War II domination of the Pacific, as well as the way the U.S. has sought to take advantage of rising tensions between China and some of its southeastern neighbours, particularly those which, like Vietnam and the Philippines, claim a right to exploit the rich fisheries and undersea resources of the South China Sea.
Even as Panetta flew on from Vietnam to pursue Washington's intensifying military courtship of India, his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was informed in Manila that U.S. forces were once again welcome to use their old bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay, so long as they received prior permission from the Philippine government.
Those facilities, the Washington's two biggest military bases outside the territorial United States, were closed to U.S. use in 1992 by a Philippine Senate intent on ending perhaps the most sensitive symbol of the country's colonial past.
But, with Manila embroiled in a simmering territorial dispute with Beijing over rival claims in the South China Sea, the Aquino government appears more than eager to deepen military engagement with Washington – an objective that Aquino's meetings here Friday served to highlight.
Thus, the two leaders reaffirmed their mutual commitment to the 61- year-old U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.
In addition, according to a statement issued by the White House after the summit, "President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. Government's support for Philippine efforts to build a minimum credible defense posture, as evidenced by our transfer of a second U.S. Coast Guard Cutter to the Philippine Navy, support for the Philippine National Coast Watch System, and the growing number of bilateral exercises and training programs."
Washington's latest moves follow a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements that, among other things, have increased the frequency and size of joint manoeuvres with most of the states of the region, including an accord last year with Australia to deploy 2,500 U.S. marines on a rotational basis at a base in the northern part of the country.
Pentagon officials have suggested such an arrangement could be replicated in the Philippines where, in any event, several hundred U.S. Special Forces have been working with the Philippine army in hunting down Islamist rebels in the southern islands for the past decade.
U.S. officials stress that Washington does not seek to establish, or, in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines, re-establish major bases in the region and thus avoid the kind of "heavy footprint" that provokes resentment in the host countries.
Rather, it wants access to what the Bush Pentagon referred to as "lily pads", forward-deployed outposts within quick striking distance of likely hotspots. Given the latest chain of events, it appears that the administration has the South China Sea uppermost on its mind.
Yet the administration stressed this week that its latest moves were not directed against China.
The White House communiqué issued after Obama's meeting with Aquino avoided any mention of China in the context of building Manila's "minimum credible defense posture".
Instead, it noted Obama's support for efforts by the ASEAN nations "to reach an agreement with China on a code of Conduct for the South China Sea that creates a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of parties, including preventing and managing disputes."
"Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on the Asia- Pacific region as some kind of challenge to China," Panetta said in Singapore. "I reject that view entirely. Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible – fully compatible – with the development and growth of China," he insisted.
That explanation was not shared in Beijing which, in contrast to recent years, sent a low-level delegation to the Singapore meeting.
"The United States verbally denies it is containing China's rise, but while establishing a new security array across the Asia-Pacific, it has invariably made China its target," according to the state newspaper, the Jun. 4 edition of the People's Daily.
Some analysts here took a more nuanced position. The latest initiatives "send a message of reassurance to Asian countries which want the United States to balance a newly powerful and sometimes bullying China," wrote Nicholas Burns, a former top U.S. diplomat who current teaches at Harvard University, in the Boston Globe Friday.
"But Obama and Panetta are also sending an unmistakable message to the Chinese leadership (that) the United States intends to remain the predominant power in the Pacific."
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.