Panetta heads to Asia, as Obama administration makes strategic ‘pivot’


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to the media during a briefing aboard his airplane in flight over the Pacific Ocean en route from Honolulu to Perth, Australia, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AP)
November 12, 2012

Just days after winning a second term, the Obama administration is intensifying its focus on Asia, with the Pentagon chief, secretary of state and the president himself making visits to the region to underline the White House’s foreign policy priorities for the next four years.

Despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan and unresolved flash points in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama and his senior national security team are pushing ahead with the strategic “pivot” to the ­Asia-Pacific region that they announced at the start of the year.

The second-term effort got underway Monday as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta traveled to Perth, Australia, for two days of talks with the country’s leaders. Joining those talks will be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. 

From there, Panetta and Clinton will hopscotch across the region separately, stopping in Cambodia and Thailand a few days apart. 

Panetta’s trip is his third to Asia since June. During that time, he has also visited China, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, India and Vietnam. His frequent Asian tours are a marked shift for the Pentagon, where his predecessors, Robert M. Gates and Donald H. Rumsfeld, were preoccupied by travel to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“We’re going to continue to invest in the region,” Panetta said of Asia. “It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of focus.”

Obama’s trip will begin Saturday and will include Thailand and Cambodia. He’ll also make a historic stop in Burma, the first U.S. president to do so, in recognition of that country’s efforts to end decades of repressive military rule. 

The presence of Air Force One and other official jets with “United States of America” emblazoned on the sides is part of Obama’s bet that America’s long-term economic and security interests are anchored in the Pacific Rim and Indian Ocean.

The rush of U.S. diplomacy is also a response to China’s growing economic and military influence. Obama administration officials say they are not trying to contain China, but virtually every diplomatic or security pact that they sign with other Asian countries is drawn up with Beijing in mind. 

Pentagon officials said the focus on Asia will continue. “This administration has made the commitment to do this level of engagement for the foreseeable future,” a senior official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. 

En route to Australia, Panetta commented on a variety of subjects, including Afghanistan. The administration has said it will cease combat operations by the end of 2014, but it is still refining its timeline for withdrawing the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops there. The administration is also debating how many trainers, Special Operations forces and military assets it will keep in the country after that to support Afghanistan’s army and police.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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