US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta is using his trip to Asia to bolster the credibility of Washington’s strategic alliances in north East Asia, especially with Japan and South Korea. Panetta, alongside his Japanese counterpart Yasuo Ichikawa, pulled no punches when talking to the Japanese press, affirming that he wanted to send a message that the ‘United States is and always will be a Pacific power.’
The Panetta’s visit to Japan is timely as the Obama administration aggressively continues to tilt its diplomatic weight towards the Asia-Pacific region after a decade of policies bogged down by counterterrorism and nation building in the Middle East and Central Asia. Japan is especially sensitive to Washington’s retrenchment from Asia as it watches an increasingly assertive China looking to dictate the strategic course of the continent’s future.
Panetta sweetened the visit by also softening the Pentagon’s tone on the US military footprint at the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. The issue has been contentious in Japan and has been poorly handled by senior officials on both sides as exemplified by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s political demise. Panetta thanked Japan for standing by its commitment to house the base until an appropriate realignment plan could be finalized. He also noted that it was ‘important to reduce the impact of our (US) bases in Okinawa.’
The visit also appeared to be successful in soothing Japan’s concerns about China and the bellicose North Korean regime that continues its petulant behaviour in order to accrue benefits from the United States in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons program. Symbolically, it was important that Panetta started his visit in Japan – which is still the engine of US strategic interests in East Asia – despite strong incentives to start his trip in South Korea in light of the North Korea issue and the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit to be held in Seoul in 2012. He certainly helped his case as by affirming that the US-Japan alliance is ‘the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.’
However, at this stage, Washington’s moves are still cosmetic. To be fair, it will take time for policies and new senior administration figures, such as Panetta, to develop and provide ample ammunition to the Pentagon’s statements. Much of this hinges on the result of US election in 2012 and the successful navigation of US policy in the Asia-Pacific region through either a change in president or a change in key senior administration officials. Obama has laid the groundwork, however, and has indicated to Japan and the United States’ other allies in the region that he intends to prioritize US foreign policy in Asia.