US to raise Asia-Pacific profile

The United States military has entered a period of historic change after more than a decade of war since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

We ended the war in Iraq, we are implementing an effective transition and drawdown in Afghanistan and we have seriously weakened al Qaeda's leadership in the fight against terrorism.

As a result of these efforts and the reality of budget constraints, the US has developed a new defence strategy for the 21st century, one that emphasises agility, technology, and force projection.

We have begun to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the future, and it is clear that many of them lie in Asia.

After all, the global centre of gravity is steadily shifting towards the Asia-Pacific region, tying the US's prosperity and security ever more closely to this fast-growing region.

At the same time, increasing military spending, challenges to maritime security, non-traditional threats ranging from piracy to terrorism, and the destruction wrought by natural disasters are making the region's security environment more complex.

For these reasons, the US Department of Defense is implementing a rebalance of the US's strategic focus and posture in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is part of a broad effort directed by President Barack Obama to deepen its diplomatic, development, economic, security, and cultural engagement across the region. For the Department of Defense, the rebalance is about helping to ensure that the US and all countries in the region continue to benefit from a secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific, as it has for nearly 70 years.

This effort rests on four pillars. The first is the US's longstanding commitment to a set of principles that helped to advance peace and security in the region in the 20th century. As a Pacific power, the US has an abiding national interest in a just international order that emphasises states' rights and responsibilities and their fidelity to the rule of law; open access for all to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace; unimpeded economic development and commerce; and resolving conflict without the use of force. These principles can and should underpin strong economic, diplomatic, and military relationships throughout the region today.

The second pillar is a special priority of mine: modernising and strengthening the US's alliances and partnerships in the region and developing new ones.

It has led the US to devote more resources and effort to building partners' capabilities and improving inter-operability between the US military and forces in the region.

We are also working to deepen our co-operation in information security, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other hi-tech frontiers, from cyberspace to outer space.

Moreover, the US is focused like never before on working with its allies and partners in South and Southeast Asia.

One of the most important ways to enhance alliances and partnerships is through joint training and exercises. During 2012, the US increased both the size and the number of bilateral and multilateral exercises across the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) exercise was the largest ever, including more than 42 ships and 25,000 personnel from 22 countries, while the US and China staged their first-ever maritime counter-piracy exercise near the Horn of Africa.

This year, we will engage for the first time in multilateral military exercises led by Asean, while China has been invited to send ships to Rimpac in 2014.

The third pillar of the US's rebalancing is to enhance our presence across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The final pillar of the US rebalance is force projection. It plans to have 60 per cent of its naval fleet based in the Pacific by 2020, and its defence budget has preserved and even boosted, with investment in new and more capable assets in the Pacific.

Some have concluded that the rebalance is directed at China. It is not. A key component of the rebalance is a healthy, stable, and continuous military-to-military relationship with China, based on sustained and substantive dialogue that enhances our ability to work together and to avoid any kind of miscalculation.

We expect and welcome other countries' efforts to build ties with China and the US alike.

Some argue that instability and turmoil in the Middle East will prevent us from implementing the rebalance. Our new defence strategy and budget makes clear that it will not.

The US military is a global force that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Even as we rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region, we will retain a significant presence in the Middle East to promote stability.

To be sure, the US is facing a new fiscal reality, and the defence budget must be reduced by $487 billion over the next decade, but budgets are about priorities, and we have clearly made the Asia-Pacific region a priority.

We have made decisions that will make our military more cost-effective, efficient and productive.

The US is and always will be a Pacific nation. It has fought and spilt precious blood to give the nations in the Asia-Pacific the opportunity to achieve prosperity and security.

It remains committed to improving the lives of all of those who are part of the Pacific family of nations. The purpose of the rebalance is to fulfil that commitment to the dream of a better and more secure 21st century.

Leon E Panetta is United States Secretary of Defense.

The Southland Times