Sino-US relations

Pentagon chief Leon Panetta visit puts US 'pivot' in clearer shape

Visit by American defence chief Leon Panetta only highlighted China's fears of containment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2012, 1:26pm

When US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the ranks of People's Liberation Army troops at a crack army academy this week it would take to time to build trust between the two militaries, it was no exaggeration.

"Despite the distance … we have travelled over the past 40 years, it is clear that this journey is not yet complete, particularly for our two militaries," he told the Engineering Academy of the PLA Armoured Forces.

As Panetta left China after his first trip as Pentagon chief, it was clear to both sides that "this journey" would be a long road. While Panetta returns home with promises of deeper co-operation in a relationship that has traditionally fallen victim to the vagaries of Sino-US political tensions, strategic differences over Washington's so-called "pivot" are now sharper than ever.

For all the reassurances to China that it should not fear the US rebalance, but rather see it as an opportunity to deepen engagement over the region, there was no shortage of evidence the policy is rapidly gaining steam.

His three-day mission to Beijing was bookended by two acts, which show the pivot in action - and only highlight China's mounting fears of containment.

Firstly, just the day before he boarded the plane to Beijing, Panetta struck a deal with his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto to expand joint ballistic missile defences by building a second radar in southern Japan.

He was at pains to stress it was directed at North Korea, not China, but Chinese strategists are unlikely to buy that in the longer-term. Significantly, the move will free up US destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle computers to move out across East Asia - and possibly help expand defensive coverage of other friends and allies, particularly South Korea and Australia.

After China, Panetta flew to New Zealand. A one-time US ally long-neglected after anti-nuclear tensions of the 1980s, New Zealand holds one of the world's biggest economic zones at sea, is an Antarctic player and has significant influence in the South Pacific - all of which make it of growing strategic interest.

Panetta's move to invite New Zealand naval ships to US ports once again is part of a raft of moves which point to a re-energised military relationship. Co-operation to help Wellington better keep an eye on its vast maritime domain is one discreet example of this.

Both moves serve as reminders that the rebalancing is not just about a few big ticket items, such as US marines in Darwin or new US coastal combat ships in Singapore, but a whole host of changes and relationships.

It is worth noting, too, that such moves, which include a new strategic relationship with Vietnam and Indonesia, and expanded submarine deployments, were quietly under way long before Obama administration policy boffins ever termed it a "pivot" late last year.

This all points to another fact not lost in Beijing - that it is a military and strategic shift, rather than a political act, and will continue no matter who wins the US election in November.

In their statements, Chinese leaders, military brass and scholars have therefore put the US on notice that they will be judged, as the shift evolves, on actions, not words.

As Shen Dingli, a scholar at Fudan University, told Bloomberg: "We want the US to reconcile their actions and statements to make China believe the US indeed doesn't intend to contain China."