US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a ‘troubling lack of transparency’ over China’s rapid military modernization, and expressed concern over the country’s ‘increasingly assertive activity in the East and South China Seas.’
The comments, which appeared in an opinion piece in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and were covered by AP as he arrived in Japan for a visit, marked a sharp change in tone from his remarks a day earlier in Bali, when he praised China for its restraint over a recently announced US arms sale to Taiwan.
‘I’ve heard nothing that indicates that they're taking any steps in reaction to (the sale),’ Panetta told reporters yesterday. ‘As a matter of fact, I guess I would commend them for the way they've handled the news.’
Still, he was also sure to make sure that there was no doubt in Beijing’s mind over the US commitment to the region.
‘In the Pacific, we’re concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific,’ Reuters reported Panetta as saying. ‘To have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.’
And he also had some sharp words for North Korea in his editorial, complaining that Pyongyang ‘continues to engage in reckless and provocative behaviour and is developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which pose a threat not just to Japan but to the entire region.’
The visit is Panetta’s first since taking over from Robert Gates, and he appears keen to follow up on the Pacific vision outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an essay in Foreign Policy earlier this month.
‘Just as Asia is critical to America's future, an engaged America is vital to Asia's future. The region is eager for our leadership and our business – perhaps more so than at any time in modern history,’ Clinton wrote. ‘We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good.’
It’s a pledge Panetta picked up on when addressing US troops at Yokota Air Base in Japan, and one that may not be welcome in Beijing.
‘I just had the opportunity to be in Indonesia and meet with the (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defence ministers,’ he according to the American Forces Press Service. ‘And I conveyed the same message to them: the United States will continue to work with all of them to improve our cooperation, to improve our assistance, and to make sure that we strengthen security for all nations in the Pacific region.’
Panetta will be meeting top Japanese officials during his visit to Japan before heading to South Korea later this week.