Panetta touts US military ties at ASEAN talks
SIEM REAP, Cambodia - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sought to promote Washington's strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar as he met regional counterparts Friday in Cambodia.
Wrapping up a tour of Asia before President Barack Obama visits the region next week, Panetta joined 10 defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Cambodian resort of Siem Reap.
In his talks, Panetta was expected to outline Washington's cautious steps toward reopening ties with Myanmar's military, as well as a bid to "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific, officials said.
The US tilt to Asia as well as warming relations with Myanmar reflect a concerted effort by the Obama administration to assert American influence in the face of China's growing economic and military might.
Next week, Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia as well as Myanmar, following a series of dramatic political changes in a country emerging from decades of military rule.
Panetta's trip, which included earlier stops in Australia and Thailand, came as China unveiled a new leadership team headed by Xi Jinping, a transition sure to feature in Friday's talks among ASEAN ministers.
Reflecting Washington's new approach to Myanmar, the Pentagon chief had no scheduled meeting set with his Myanmar counterpart but was open to an informal conversation, a senior US defence official told reporters.
The United States was ready to explore reviving military ties with Myanmar but at a deliberate pace, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pentagon officials are considering cooperating with Myanmar's armed forces on non-lethal programmes focused on military medicine, education and disaster relief exercises.
The activities would be "limited in scope" at the outset, the official added. "We'll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform. We need to see continued progress."
The overtures to Myanmar's leaders -- and Obama's planned visit next week -- are a source of concern for China, as the country -- along with North Korea -- had remained firmly in Beijing's orbit and off-limits to the Americans until now, analysts and officials said.
"From China's perspective, enhancing US-Burma (Myanmar) security ties takes on greater significance because it was one of the few countries in China's periphery that Beijing had a near monopoly on military, economic, and diplomatic relations," Andrew Scobell, an expert at the US-based RAND Corporation think tank, told AFP.
"Now, with a US-Burmese rapprochement well under way, China's leaders believe they are being outmuscled by the United States in yet another location around their periphery," he said.
Washington's diplomatic initiatives to Myanamar and Cambodia come despite concerns over human rights in both countries, with US officials lobbying Cambodian leader Hun Sen to end a crackdown on dissidents and protests.
In his discussions with the Southeast Asian ministers, Panetta was due to renew US appeals for a peaceful, multilateral resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, which have tended to pit China against its neighbours over potentially resource-rich waters.
"We continue to be closely monitoring both the situations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea," said the same defence official.
"Our message is going to be consistent with what we've said in the past, which is we don't take sides. We want these disputes solved peacefully in accordance with international law but we do take issue with coercion," the defence official said. -- Agence France-Presse