Welcome to Asia, Secretary Panetta
Image Credit: US Defence Department

Welcome to Asia, Secretary Panetta


It’s hardly surprising that Leon Panetta made Asia his first overseas stop after being sworn in as US defence secretary. But he will find as he travels more around the region that in the view of many Asians, for better or worse, he has a tough act to follow.

Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, had a tremendous impact in redefining the US military presence throughout the continent. He was particularly popular in Southeast Asia, where the US military stance became much firmer after Gates assumed office in December 2006. A common complaint from East Asian leaders before then had been that the United States had become preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was neglecting its regional defence interests. But especially since President Barack Obama took office, the Pentagon has joined with other US agencies in sending more senior officials there on a more regular basis.     

Gates was, of course, less popular in China. Not only did the Pentagon’s activities around Southeast Asia look like the United States was seeking to establish a de facto coalition to contain Beijing, but the US Navy declined to end its controversial surveillance activities in China’s declared economic exclusion zone. (Ironically, Gates was also unpopular in Taipei for failing to press the Obama administration to provide Taiwan with the advanced weaponry it needed).

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Yet Gates may well have been least popular in South and Central Asia, where the Pentagon found it difficult to manage the region’s destructive brew of cross-cutting conflicts. In particular, being nice to Pakistan in an effort to induce Islamabad to crack down harder on Islamist extremists antagonized New Delhi and Kabul, while reaching out to India, such as with the controversial civil nuclear energy deal, only made Pakistan jealous.

In stark contrast, military ties between Russia and the United States recovered surprisingly well after they reached a nadir in the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Their differences over missile defence, Iran, Libya, and European security issues persist, but the imperative of cooperating to manage the rising Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has outweighed these divisions. Russians have important security interests in nearby Central Asia and the Caucasus, and are especially eager to work with NATO to stem the flow of Afghan narcotics that Moscow authorities estimate kill some 30,000 Russian citizens each year.

Panetta doesn’t have the same high degree of interest in Russia as Gates, who was trained as a CIA Cold War warrior. Even so, Gates himself remarked a few years ago that, for all their training in Soviet affairs, neither he nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, another former Soviet expert, were able to understand or reverse the deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States.

One of Panetta’s most important challenges as he manages the planned drawdown in US forces in Afghanistan is crafting a new regional security structure to fill the vacuum. Panetta’s deep involvement with counterterrorist operations in Pakistan might result in his becoming the main Washington interlocutor with Islamabad, with him filling the role now played by Adm. Mike Mullen, the departing Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff. Panetta has developed extensive operational ties with Pakistan’s influential intelligence leaders as head of the CIA, which conducts its own drone operation in Pakistan independent of the Pentagon. Regrettably, Panetta is widely disliked in Pakistan for his lead role in conducting the drone strikes, which Pakistanis believe claim have killed many innocent civilians.

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