SIEM REAP, Cambodia—US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday sought to promote Washington’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Burma (Myanmar) as he met counterparts in the region.
The US tilt to Asia reflects a concerted effort by the Obama 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 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), including Burma.
He said the Pentagon would increase the size and number of its defense exercises with its Southeast Asian partners.
Pentagon officials are considering reviving military ties with Burma 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, adding: “We’ll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform. We need to see continued progress.”
Burma 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.
The overtures to Burma’s leaders are a source of concern for China, as the country—along with North Korea—has remained firmly in Beijing’s orbit and off-limits to the Americans until now, analysts said.
“From China’s perspective, enhancing US-Burma 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,” said Andrew Scobell of the RAND Corp. think tank.
“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.