“Delicate Dance” for Panetta in China’s Backyard

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A Philippines Navy Hamilton-class cutter was dispatched to inspect Chinese fishing vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoals, setting of an armed confrontation.

TOKYO – When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrives in Singapore this week to talk about containing China – and that’s really what this trip is all about — he’ll find plenty of support from friends in the region. But that might not make his job any easier. Allies old and new will be looking for assurances that America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is more than just rhetoric and that the U.S. will help them stand up to an increasingly powerful and demanding China.

“It’s going to be a delicate dance,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, in Honolulu.  “You want to send a message to your allies that you support them, but without emboldening them. We don’t want to send the signal that we are using proxies to bait the bear. But at the same time, we don’t want to give the impression that we are somehow deferring to China. So Panetta’s job will be to walk that fine line.”

Panetta and other top U.S. defense officials will arrive as an armed standoff between China and the Philippines over a disputed fishing reef enters its seventh week.  China claims sovereignty over vast tracts of the South China and East China seas already claimed or controlled by six other countries.

A U.S. nuclear-powered submarine made a highly publicized port stop at Subic Bay earlier this month, and Philippines officials are expected to ask Panetta for a squadron of F-16 fighters, a Coast Guard cutter, and other concrete demonstrations of support when they meet at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense conference in Singapore.

Panetta is also scheduled to meet with defense leaders from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and other nations during the conference, which begins Friday and last through the weekend. He may meet there with officials from China. After Singapore, Panetta is scheduled to spend two days each in Vietnam and India.

It will be his first trip to the region since the Pentagon announced its “pivot” to Asia earlier this year. He’ll be accompanied by the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command — next to a presidential visit, that’s about as high-powered as it gets.

China’s rising ambitions and territorial claims throughout the region, and planned cuts in U.S. defense spending, will provide the backdrop for the talks. While regional officials will be looking for Panetta to say all the right things, they’ll be looking for actions, as well.

The U.S. has already agreed to station Marines in Australia and new Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. Talks are underway with the Philippines to allow access to bases there for U.S. troops and ships.  Vietnam is expected to ask for radar and anti-aircraft defenses and for defense-related infrastructure and training. India may ask for an increase in joint-training exercises and to re-open talks to buy F-35 fighters planes.

The U.S. will have to decide case-by-case what’s in the U.S. and partners’ best interests, but already Panetta appears to be setting a tough tone. With a clear nod towards China, he told graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy this week that despite planned defense cuts, the U.S. is prepared to “defeat any opponent, any time, any where.”

“America’s future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia,” Panetta said.

That does not mean Panetta will be looking to ring the region with U.S. bases, however, or that every country in the region would welcome that, says Raoul Heinrichs, of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, in Canberra.

“It’s a complicated picture out here.  In broad terms, people want from the U.S. what they’ve had for a long time – that is, to prevent the domination of the region by any other power, and now that’s increasingly China,” Heinrichs says. “But it would be a mistake to think that everybody is simply lining up behind the U.S. and that they will accommodate every U.S. preference.”

And that could make for a full dance card for Panetta.