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China wary of moves by U.S. military in Asia-Pacific

By David S. Cloud

Tribune Washington Bureau

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 07:54 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2012


WASHINGTON >> When a senior U.S. general met in Beijing recently with Lt. Gen. Cai Yingting, the deputy chief of China’s armed forces, Cai forcefully objected to America’s expanding military presence in Asia and the Pacific, describing it as an effort to encircle his country.

“Why are you containing us?” Cai demanded, according to a U.S. official who was present and described the incident in return for anonymity.

The U.S. general denied seeking to contain China, but it’s easy to see why officials in Beijing might get that impression.

The Obama administration is forging closer defense ties to countries near China, including India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore; repositioning troops, planes and ships; and stepping up aid in the South Pacific to offset attention from Beijing.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is likely to face more sharp questions Monday when he arrives in Beijing for talks with Gen. Liang Guanglie, China’s defense minister, the focal point of a trip that will also take him to Japan and New Zealand.

Panetta is making his first visit to China - but his third trip to the region - since taking over the Pentagon in July 2011, as the administration seeks to shore up alliances and beef up forces to provide a counterweight to China’s growing influence in Asia and the Pacific.

In the latest example, U.S. officials said they hoped to resume visits by Navy warships to New Zealand for the first time since 1984. Even though the South Pacific nation is a close American ally, Washington suspended a mutual defense treaty and most military cooperation with Wellington after it passed a law barring vessels carrying nuclear weapons or using nuclear power in its waters.

U.S. officials said they were exploring whether New Zealand might repeal its ban on nuclear-powered ships, which in the U.S. fleet includes submarines and aircraft carriers. But the Pentagon also is considering changing its policy against sending even nonnuclear Navy vessels to New Zealand.

As a result, Panetta will be the first U.S. Defense secretary to visit New Zealand in more than three decades. A resolution of the long-standing dispute would permit more joint naval exercises and training in the South Pacific, U.S. officials say.

“We’re in discussions right now, not to bring nuclear weapons to New Zealand but ... to help them develop their amphibious capability, which they are very proud of because they consider themselves a southwest Pacific power,” the U.S. official said.

Driving the change is an emerging competition for influence in the South Pacific, where China is cultivating tiny island nations by building roads, harbors and other development projects. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton two weeks ago attended a regional forum in the far-flung Cook Islands, northeast of New Zealand.

In public, U.S. officials say they are “rebalancing” forces around the globe now that U.S. troops have left Iraq and are withdrawing from Afghanistan, freeing up military hardware. They say the shift to Asia is aimed not at China, but at the range of security threats, including nuclear-armed North Korea; and at noncombat contingencies, such as humanitarian disasters.

Planners at the Pentagon and at U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees military operations in the region, emphasize that they are not interested in permanent new bases or in a large military footprint. But they are active on multiple fronts.

The Pentagon is reorganizing 9,000 Marines into four task forces to be located in Guam, Hawaii, the Japanese island of Okinawa and, for six-month rotations, at a base on the northern coast of Australia. Three squadrons of F-22 fighters, an advanced jet considered crucial for any engagement with China, will eventually be based in the region.

The Navy will base four new lightly armed ships in Singapore. They will operate in the strategic Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a choke point for the transit of oil and trade, and the energy-rich South China Sea, where territorial jostling between China and other countries has created tension.

The Obama administration is in talks with the Philippine government on regaining access to the Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Base, two Cold War-era installations on or near the South China Sea. Pentagon planners say they are not interested in returning U.S. military personnel permanently to the Philippines but rather see it as a possible logistics hub, especially for humanitarian supplies.

U.S. Pacific Command hopes to regain access to U-Tapao air base in Thailand, which the U.S. used during the Vietnam War to base B-52 bombers. The current plans call for the United States to help the Thais build a humanitarian assistance center, and eventually rotate U.S. troops in on temporary deployments to train with Thai units, U.S. officials said.

“We had to reassure them that, no, we are not bringing B-52s back,” a senior official said about the talks with Thailand. “We have to be very sensitive to the domestic political pressure. They’re not allowing us to just come barging in at any time.”

Since the White House announced the shift back to Asia last fall, some analysts have criticized it as more rhetorical than real. An assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan policy analysis organization in Washington, said the Pentagon still had “not adequately articulated the strategy” or explained how it would be achieved with a shrinking defense budget.

“The top priority of U.S. strategy in Asia is not to prepare for a conflict with China,” the report concluded. “It is to shape the conflict so that such a conflict is never necessary.”

In a formal response, Panetta said he disagreed with the report’s finding of a “disconnect between strategy and resources,” but acknowledged that “budgeting will be essential to properly execute this strategy.”

Panetta will face a difficult time convincing China’s military leaders that the U.S. buildup isn’t aimed at them.

When his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, went to Beijing in early 2011, China’s air force conducted the first flight test of an experimental stealth fighter.

The move indicated that the Chinese military establishment sees the two nations more as rivals than as potential partners. So do some within the U.S. government.







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allie wrote:
Why on earth do we need to add China to our long list of created "enemies." Both parties depend on military lobbying and money. Have to keep creating enemies to maintain our military industrial complex.
on September 16,2012 | 08:46AM
HD36 wrote:
True Dat: We print trillions of dollars out of thin air and call in quatitative easing yet we label them " currency manipulators" We blame them for our high unemployment figures but it is American compaies that voluntarily moved their manufacuring to China in order to escape all the costs of government rules, regulations and health care. It's happened throughout history. Trade wars, lead to currency wars, then lead to militray war. The blame game is on. It's never the government's fault.
on September 16,2012 | 10:39AM
HD36 wrote:
We want to spend millions of tax payer dollars to build a humanitarian center in Thailand? What's that? Sounds like a gift to the Thailand Government in exchange for allowing an air base. If anyone needs a humanitarian center, it's the United States. There's more children in poverty in this country than ever before.
on September 16,2012 | 10:32AM
sailfish1 wrote:
The U.S. needs to stop all this military posturing. Instead of creating new military bases in Asia and all over the world, we need to start shutting down our bases. We can't afford to be the "policeman" of the world.
on September 16,2012 | 12:31PM
HD36 wrote:
True, if we decide to attack Iran because Israel wants us to, we'll be even more spread out. Right now Britain is sending an Armada of battleships to the Straights of Hormuz to participate in the largest ever war games in the region. Iran's Gerneral said if the US attacks Iran, they will respond by firing thousands of missles at ever US base in the region and "there will be nothing left of Israel."
on September 16,2012 | 02:20PM
mitt_grund wrote:
The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of waves of Western incursion into Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and the Pacific. There were the Opium Wars where China tried to resist the forced sale of opium into China by Great Britain in Great Britain's successful attempt to restore trade balance. Great Britain under Queen Victoria saw no other recourse than to force the Chinese to buy opium that Great Britain produced in Afghanistan to even out the huge trade deficit it was facing with China. What better way to subdue a people than to drug them. The U.S. participated in the Western invasion of China as well, siding with the European powers in the Boxer Rebellion which was a people's revolt against the Western powers occupying China. People forget that the Communists under Mao were allies in WW II against the Japanese, as were the Russians. Japan and Germany were the enemy. World wars make for strange alliances and short term memory. Don't put it past the U.S. to do precisely what Great Britain did, wage war against China to seize back by force what it had lost in trade to China. It would be true to form, much like they did in the Philippines, promising independence to the Filipinos in the war against Spain, welshing on the deal and slaughtering a million Filipinos and Filipinas in the resulting revolt against the U.S. The U.S. had a bounty on any Filipino killed, whether man, woman or child. That was a time of "Manifest Destiny", the U.S. ruling the world.
on September 16,2012 | 02:18PM
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