Panetta Meets with Southeast Asian Counterparts
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
SIEM REAP, Cambodia, Nov. 16, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met here today with his counterparts from 10 countries that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, during his first visit to Cambodia since taking office.
The meeting took place on the final day of Panetta’s weeklong Asia-Pacific trip -- his third this year -- to discuss the U.S. rebalance to the region with counterparts and government officials in Australia, Thailand and Cambodia.
ASEAN was formed in 1967. Its member states are Burma, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
So far as secretary, Panetta has visited five ASEAN nations -- Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia -- and held bilateral meetings with two others -- Malaysia and the Philippines.
“Today we reaffirmed the importance of ASEAN unity for building regional stability,” the secretary said during an afternoon news conference, “and also the United States’ support for ASEAN-led defense cooperation [in] critical areas including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, nonproliferation and counterterrorism.”
Panetta said he stressed in today’s meetings U.S. support for the protection of human rights, civilian oversight of the military, and respect for the rule of law and for the right of full and fair participation in the political process in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.
“As I said last year [at the ASEAN meeting] in Indonesia and I stress again, we are committed to further strengthening the U.S.-ASEAN relationship,” Panetta said.
To reflect that commitment, he added, “the United States will increase the size and number of exercises that we participate in the Pacific with our Southeast Asian partners, and we are devoting new funding to this goal.”
The secretary noted that progress has been made toward action-oriented cooperation in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, in which ASEAN members partner with the United States and a range of other countries on defense efforts.
“The United States looks forward to participating in three new ADMM-Plus exercises in 2013,” Panetta said, including a humanitarian and disaster relief exercise hosted by Brunei, a counterterrorism exercise that the United States will co-sponsor with Indonesia, and a maritime security exercise co-chaired by Malaysia and Australia.
For one Thai-led multilateral exercise called Cobra Gold, Thailand may invite the Burmese army to observe or participate when the exercise begins again in 2013.
Senior defense officials said the United States, whose military ties with ASEAN member Burma have long been suspended, has taken initial steps toward the resumption of the military-to-military relationship with Burma and would not object to their participation in some aspects of the Cobra Gold exercise.
On the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said the message he has conveyed on this visit and during others to the region is that “the rebalance is real, it is sustainable and it will be ongoing … into the future.”
The U.S. military has worked with friends, partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific region for more than 70 years, the secretary noted, trying to foster conditions that lead to economic growth, more effective governance and an effort to help lift millions from poverty and create a better future for generations to come.
Increased military engagement in the region is one part of the effort by the United States to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Panetta said.
“This effort includes not just military but diplomatic, economic and cultural engagement across the region,” he said, “and I know that President [Barack] Obama looks forward to discussing each of these elements of our rebalance when he arrives here for the East Asia Summit later this week.”
Panetta said he stressed to his counterparts today that he is impressed by the continuing development of ASEAN-led efforts to enhance security.
“As I stated at the last meeting,” he added, “we in the Pacific are part of one family of nations. We may not agree on all issues, but we are committed to work together to ensure the security of that family.”