By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s debut trip to China is generally characterized as fruitful.
The Pentagon chief came here hoping to allay Chinese concerns that the U.S. is pursuing a new military containment strategy aimed at Asia’s biggest power,.
Vice President Xi Jingping and other Chinese leaders told Panetta that the Obama administration’s Asia strategy is too focused on rebuilding the U.S. military posture in the region after a decade of war in the Middle East. They urged the U.S. to place more weight on diplomacy and less on threatening forms of American power.
Washington’s new move to house more antiballistic missile hardware within Japan is again stoking the regional anxiety. Before arriving in Beijing, Panetta announced in Tokyo that Washington planned to place a sophisticated anti-missile radar system in southern Japan. He said the system would help the U.S. and Japan better defend against potential missile launches by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea) and free up U.S. Navy ships that patrol near the Korean peninsula.
China worries that the anti-missile system could also be used to counteract its growing regional influence and would embolden some aggressive neighbors to further challenge its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Citing the ongoing islands dispute with Japan, and with it the upsurge of the Chinese national sentiment, all unleashed by Japan’s unlawful deal on the Chinese Diaoyu Islands, Panetta has stressed repeatedly during stops in Tokyo and Beijing that Washington takes no position on the territorial dispute and wants to see it resolved peacefully, but the close U.S.-Japanese defense relationship has only added to China’s concerns that it is facing new military threats on its periphery.
Also, it has been already a cliché since the Obama administration declared to shift its strategic focus eastward and pivot to Asia-Pacific that the U.S. is increasing its military presence in the region.
Chinese side has on various occasions questioned U.S. officials since Obama announced the new Asia strategy last year about whether its goal is to contain China’s rising power in the region. The White House announcement has been followed by Pentagon moves in recent months to reposition U.S. troops, planes and warships to Southeast Asia, which the U.S. pulled out of after the Vietnam War.
U.S. officials were worried enough about the Chinese concerns of military encirclement that Panetta addressed the issues directly Wednesday in speech to military cadets at the Peoples Liberation Army armored engineering academy on the outskirts of Beijing.
“Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China,” he said. “It is about renewing and revitalizing our role in a part of the world that is rapidly becoming more critical to our economic, diplomatic and security interests."
Whether Panetta’s visit at the critical juncture would reset the China-U.S. relations is hardly discernable to date, but the fact that China has been invited into the Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), a naval exercise China has strived after for a long time, is a very positive development.
The problem here is, in the backdrop of the U.S. Rebalancing Asia Strategy, what are most prospective and most promising areas of cooperation between China and the U.S. as things stand now?
It is also a good omen that both navies are already building on this anti-piracy drills that took place just the past week, which is an area where both China and the U.S. have an interest in maintaining fully functional and safe sea lanes and maintaining seaborne commerce. And it is also an area to start trust- building endeavor between people on each side.
And again, it is encouraging to see Secretary Panetta say that there could be things that the U.S. could learn from China in terms of its peacekeeping operations, which is going to be part of the dialogue going forward.
In prospective, an important part of the relationship between China and the U.S. is for both sides to realize that while there must be a lot of things they can agree upon, they are still not going to agree about everything. The linchpin is that the disagreement will not derail the overall relationship.