US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta heads for Indonesia, Japan and South Korea today to encourage more security cooperation that would deter threats from North Korea and provide a hedge against military expansion by China.
Panetta will meet in Bali on October 23 with Indonesian Defense minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations before travelling to Tokyo and Seoul early next week. The stops are his first visits to the three countries since taking office July 1, succeeding Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Arriving in Seoul on October 26, Panetta will stress the US’s determination to deter North Korea and to prevail in any conflict should that fail, a US defense official told reporters in Washington yesterday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks.
Panetta embarks on his trip as other US officials prepare to resume direct talks with North Korea next week in Geneva to help prevent the totalitarian Asian nation from taking further hostile actions.
North Korea abandoned six-nation nuclear disarmament talks involving the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia in April 2009 and followed with a second nuclear test, two alleged attacks on South Korea, and revelations of a secret uranium- enrichment programme.
Gates had expressed concern during his visits to Seoul that South Korea may not display the same degree of restraint in its response to North Korea the next time it’s attacked, potentially spurring a wider conflict.
The US has sought to coordinate its efforts on North Korea with officials in Seoul and Tokyo, as well as the other nations that had been involved in the joint talks. Panetta’s trip follows South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to Washington last week for meetings with President Barack Obama as the US Congress gave long-awaited approval for free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il yesterday was quoted in the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta as saying that he’s willing to improve ties with the US if it abandons its “hostile policy toward North Korea and shows good will.”
In Japan, the US faces opposition from residents and leaders in Okinawa to long-held plans for moving a US Marine base to a less-populated part of the island. Okinawans have pressed for the US to remove its forces entirely.
US Base Plans
Panetta will emphasize to Japanese leaders during his stop there beginning October 24 that the Obama administration is determined to move forward with the base realignment plans, crafted through years of negotiations, the US defense official said. The US sees the move as integral in keeping a strong defense presence in the region, the official said.
Japan also is a prospective customer for US fighter jets. Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and Eurofighter GmbH submitted bids last month to supply Japan with fighter jets in a contest that may be worth more than $4 billion. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed proposed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while Chicago- based Boeing offered the F-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter put forward the Typhoon.
Japan plans to pick a winner this year to supply about 40 fighters as it works to replace aging planes and bolster defenses against potential threats from North Korea and China.
In Indonesia, Panetta’s meeting with Yusgiantoro in Bali will stress the need for the Southeast Asian nation to continue reforming its military and adhering to human-rights standards for continued cooperation with the American military, a second US defense official told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
Gates, on a visit to the capital Jakarta last year, restored ties with Indonesia’s special forces after a 12-year gap, in a move criticised at the time by New York-based Human Rights Watch. The elite unit known as Kopassus, which previously had been cited for human rights violations, had already moved on to take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
The US military cooperation now is at the stage of conducting exchanges on non-lethal topics such as human rights training and military medicine, one of the US defense officials said.
Panetta also will meet in Bali with counterparts from the 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean, in a push by the Obama administration to get the countries working more closely with each other and with the US and finding peaceful ways of settling territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Chinese Defense minister Liang Guanglie met with the group earlier this year.
No China Stop
Panetta isn’t stopping in Beijing this time because the two sides traditionally conduct alternating visits of their defense chiefs every other year, one of the US defense officials said. Gates was in China in January, and the US expects the Chinese defense minister to visit Washington next year, the official said.
China also has rebuked the Obama administration for its announcement last month that it would sell Taiwan $5.3 billion in upgrades for the island nation’s fleet of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter jets. China, which regards Taiwan as a province to be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary, said the latest sale would hurt its military ties with the US
The US, which has sought to balance its commitment to help Taiwan deter China with Obama’s push to improve relations with officials in Beijing, rejected Taiwan’s request for a more advanced model of the F-16.
Asked whether any regular military talks between the US and China have been scheduled, the US defense official said the two sides are still discussing a resumption. -By Viola Gienger