* Defense secretary to visit Singapore, Vietnam, India
* Trip comes amid renewed South China Sea tensions
* Delicate balance needed to avoid spat with China
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, May 30 Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta will brief allies on the U.S. strategic shift toward
Asia and will seek to allay concerns that fiscal uncertainty
could undermine Washington's commitment to the effort as he
begins a week-long visit to the region this weekend.
With the Asia-Pacific region unsettled by renewed tensions
over competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea,
Panetta flies to Hawaii on Wednesday for briefings with the head
of the U.S. Pacific Command before traveling on to Singapore for
the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
He later spends two days apiece in Vietnam and India,
countries that have become increasingly important to the U.S.
push for a rules-based regional order that would protect freedom
of navigation and trade while resolving conflicts peacefully.
The trip is Panetta's first to the Asia-Pacific area since
the Pentagon issued its new strategic guidance in January
calling for a shift in focus toward the region, creating "news
and buzz" about the concept, a U.S. defense official said.
"What we're trying to do with the swing through Asia is to
give a comprehensive account to partners and everyone in the
region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will mean in
practice," the official told a news briefing, speaking on
condition of anonymity.
Panetta also is likely to address lingering concerns about
the U.S. need to reduce its defense budget and whether
Washington will be able to maintain its commitment to the region
despite soaring deficits.
The Pentagon is under orders to cut planned defense spending
by $487 billion over the next decade. An additional round of
cuts due in January will take another $500 billion over a decade
unless Congress acts to stop the reductions by raising revenue
or making cuts elsewhere in the U.S. budget
"One of the things you'll hear the secretary addressing
specifically is how the rebalance will be resourced and the
commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific in the long
term," the official said.
The Shangri-La Dialogue brings together senior civilian and
military chiefs from nearly 30 Asia-Pacific states to foster
security cooperation. Sponsored by the International Institute
for Strategic Studies think tank, it was first held in 2002 and
it takes its name from the host Singapore hotel.
CONCERN IN CHINA
While President Barack Obama's administration insists that
the shift in focus is not aimed at any one country, Panetta will
have to watch his language in Singapore and Vietnam to avoid
heightening Beijing's concerns that the renewed U.S. strategic
focus on Asia seeks to contain China's rise as a global power.
"He's going to have to be careful about what he says," said
Jonathan Pollack, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution
think tank. "It's ... important for the kinds of message that he
wants to send, lest there be triggering responses on the part of
Pollack noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
sparked a spat with China at an ASEAN forum in Vietnam 2010 by
pressing the issue of territorial claims in the South China Sea.
While a recently issued U.S. report on China's military
power avoided the tendency of earlier documents "toward
hyperventilating about China," Pollack said, the strategic
guidance released in January heightened Beijing's concerns.
The document lumped China and Iran in the same category as
potential U.S. adversaries and also portrayed India as if it
were helping to counterbalance China's military power, he said.
"If you are trying to elicit China's involvement to curtail
what Iran is doing, to mention the two of them in the same
breath, that clearly garners attention on the part of Chinese
officials," Pollack said. "So words do count. And ... hopefully
he (Panetta) will be careful about what he says."
U.S. defense officials said the New Delhi leg of the trip
was aimed at deepening defense ties with India, which was listed
in the strategic guidance in January as a country with which the
United States wants to have a defense partnership.
"India is the only country we mentioned specifically in the
defense strategic guidance as a partner," the official said.
"We're moving to an era in which we think defense cooperation
with India is just going to be on a steady roll."
Karl Inderfurth, a South Asia analyst at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, said the mention of India
in the strategic guidance was a signal the United States wants
New Delhi's help to build stability in the region.
"India got a shout out in the new strategic guidance that
other countries did not," he said. "The United States is looking
to India for more than defense trade ... It is looking to India
to contribute as a provider of security in the broader Indian
Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South
Asia affairs, said India was evaluating its capabilities and
thinking about possible roles, and was interested in expanding
defense cooperation with the United States.
New Delhi is likely to do so on its own terms in a way that
would ease any concerns from Beijing about an anti-China
Indian officials will have probing questions for Panetta
about Afghanistan, Inderfurth said. India is concerned that a
U.S. pullout before Afghan forces are ready to take over
security requirements could destabilize the country, allowing it
to again become a haven for Islamic extremists bent on spreading
their influence in Kashmir.
"They are very concerned that if the U.S. departs and
doesn't do it responsibly ... that the Afghan security forces
will not be up to the challenge, and that they will be back to a
time when a radical Islamic regime is established," he said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)