SIEM REAP, Cambodia: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sought yesterday to promote Washington’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar as he met counterparts in the region.
The US tilt to Asia reflects a concerted effort by President Barack Obama’s administration to assert American influence in the face of China’s growing economic and military might.
“The message I have conveyed on this visit is that the United States’ rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is real, it is sustainable, and it will be ongoing for a long period of time,” Panetta said.
The US is deepening its military engagement with allies in the region, he told reporters after talks with counterparts from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — including Myanmar — in Cambodia.
He said the Pentagon would increase the size and number of its defense exercises with its Southeast Asian partners.
Fresh from re-election victory, Obama will arrive in the region next week for a historic visit to Myanmar before joining his top diplomat Hillary Clinton in Cambodia for an Asia-Pacific summit.
Obama will be the first sitting US president ever to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma, following a series of dramatic political changes in the former pariah state, which is emerging from decades of military rule.
Pentagon officials are considering reviving military ties with Myanmar to cooperate on non-lethal programs focused on medicine, education and disaster relief exercises.
The activities would be “limited in scope” at the outset, said a senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We’ll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform. We need to see continued progress,” the official said.
Myanmar is also expected to be invited to observe Cobra Gold, the largest US multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific. It brings together thousands of troops from the US, Thailand and other countries for field training.