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Panetta’s Asia-Pacific Trip Seeks to Broaden Rebalance

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

HONOLULU, Nov. 12, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has begun a weeklong visit to three nations in the Asia-Pacific region, his fourth official trip to area that is the focus of a rebalance of time, attention and resources for the Defense Department.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Maj. Gen. Anthony G. Cruchfield, chief of staff of U.S. Pacific Command, right, salutes as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta steps off the plane in Honolulu, Nov. 11, 2012. Panetta participated in Veterans Day ceremonies in Hawaii, the first stop on a six-day trip en route to Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The trip includes visits to Australia, Thailand and Cambodia, but for the secretary it began here yesterday on Veterans Day at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also called the Punchbowl.

The cemetery rises above Honolulu on land that 75,000 years ago was a crater formed when hot lava gushed through cracks in ancient coral reefs.

Today it is the final resting place of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from the Boxer Rebellion, the Korean War, World War II and Vietnam, as well as two astronauts and World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, a Navy Reserve seaman third class killed by a Japanese sniper near Okinawa in 1945.

At the cemetery, veterans and their families formed a long line, waiting to shake hands and chat with the secretary of defense. Panetta laid a wreath at a monument, and then greeted the veterans and members of the color guard one by one and took a photograph with the crew of cemetery caretakers, all of them veterans.

When Panetta leaves Honolulu today, he will head to Perth, Australia, to attend the annual bilateral consultations between Australia and the United States.

There, he will join with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in meetings with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and sessions of the conference.

Panetta also will meet with Defense Minister Stephen Smith and Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett.

During this first official trip to Australia, Panetta will express to the Australians his gratitude for their contribution to U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan, officials said.

Earlier yesterday, aboard a military aircraft en route to Hawaii, a senior defense official told reporters traveling with the secretary that the United States “very much appreciates the Australians’ commitment to Afghanistan, … and we look forward to bringing that spirit of cooperation and interoperability to the Pacific as well in a greater capacity.”

A key accomplishment this year for the U.S.-Australia partnership has been the start of Marine Corps and Air Force rotational deployments to northern Australia, the official said.

At the ministerial consultations, he said, “I think our primary objective is to make more progress on the Marine Corps and Air Force [deployments].”

Senior-level meetings will help to “move the ball forward and deepen the implementation,” he added, “so we’re going to try to keep this on track, as well as broaden our cooperation with the Australians.”

Later this week in Bangkok, Panetta will meet with his Thai counterpart, Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

This is the first visit of a secretary of defense to Thailand since 2008, the senior defense official said. “We enjoy great operational cooperation and access with the Thais, [and] we’re trying to do is bring back this important strategic piece of the defense relationship,” the official added. “That’s our primary objective in Thailand.”

After his meetings in Thailand, the secretary will travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he will meet with Cambodian Defense Minister Gen. Tea Banh and with defense ministers from member countries of ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Defense.

“It’s a change to talk about how we would like to work with these countries on key nontraditional security threats, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster response, nonproliferation, counterpiracy and others, … and how we can cooperatively tackle some of these transnational threats,” the defense official said.

Panetta also could discuss regional cooperation, ASEAN unity, his recent trips to China and India, and U.S. fiscal pressures on the Defense Department, the official added.

The U.S. rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region is building on relationships that have been going on for decades, the official said. “We’ve been in the Asia-Pacific for 60 or 70 years, and we have worked with friends, partners and allies to promote and maintain a system that has brought economic prosperity, security and in parts democracy to this region,” he added.

The United States is inextricably tied to the region, he said, “and the whole point of the rebalance is to keep doing what we have been doing.”

The rebalance is part of a process, the official noted. “We are playing the long game here,” he said. “This is something that’s going to take years to do, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that … we’re off to a fast start.

“The resources are moving,” he added, “the engagement of senior-level officials is there, and the bureaucratic weight and the time, attention and resources of the United States government are moving toward the Pacific theater.”

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Leon E. Panetta

Related Sites:
Special Report: Travels With Panetta
Photo Essay: Panetta Observes Veterans Day in Hawaii

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Panetta Aims to Fortify Alliances on Asia-Pacific Tour

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