US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will outline Washington’s strategic shift to the Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar when he meets Friday with his Asian counterparts at a conference in Cambodia, officials said.
Wrapping up a week-long tour of Southeast Asia that comes before President Barack Obama visits the region next week, Panetta will join 10 fellow defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the Cambodian resort of Siem Reap.
In his talks, Panetta is expected to discuss America’s careful steps toward reopening ties with Myanmar’s military as well as Washington’s bid to “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific.
The US tilt to Asia as well as warming relations with Myanmar reflect a concerted effort by the Obama administration to assert American influence in the face of China’s growing economic and military might.
Next week, Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia as well as Myanmar, following a series of dramatic political changes in a country emerging from decades of military rule.
A senior US defence official told reporters travelling with Panetta that the United States was open to reviving military ties with Myanmar, but that the Pentagon would proceed at a deliberate pace.
US officials are considering cooperating with Myanmar’s armed forces on non-lethal programmes focused on military medicine, education and disaster relief exercises.
The activities would be “limited in scope” at the outset, the official added. “We’ll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform, we need to see continued progress.”
The overtures to Myanmar’s leaders are a source of concern for China, as Myanmar – along with North Korea – had remained firmly in Beijing’s orbit and off-limits to the Americans until now, analysts and officials said.
“From China’s perspective, enhancing US-Burma [Myanmar] security ties takes on greater significance because it was one of the few countries in China’s periphery that Beijing had a near monopoly on military, economic, and diplomatic relations,” Andrew Scobell, an expert at the US-based RAND Corporation think tank, said.
In his discussions in Cambodia, Panetta also is expected to renew US appeals for a peaceful, multilateral resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China, which have tended to pit China against its neighbours over potentially resource-rich waters.
“We continue to be closely monitoring both the situations in the South China sea and the East China Sea,” said the senior defence official.
“Our message is going to be consistent with what we’ve said in the past, which is we don’t take sides, we want these disputes solved peacefully in accordance with international law but we do take issue with coercion,” the defence official said.
On Thursday, Panetta signed a “joint vision” statement in Bangkok reaffirming the US-Thailand military alliance for what he called a new era.
Panetta’s trip came as China unveiled a new leadership team headed by Xi Jinping, a transition closely followed in Washington.