Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta Visits Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia

  • Photo courtesy of U.S. Secretary of Defense
    Nov 14, 2012

    Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta left on November 11 for his fourth trip this year to the Asia-Pacific region, with scheduled stops in Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia. Panetta attended the U.S.-Australian Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Perth with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He will continue on to Bangkok before attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Phnom Penh. His trip is designed to advance the United States’ “long-term strategy of rebalancing with the Asia-Pacific,” according to Department of Defense press secretary George Little. The trip comes just days before President Barack Obama’s trip to the region and will reinforce the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, including to two of its long-standing regional allies, Australia and Thailand.

    Q1: What can we expect from Panetta’s three-country trip?

    A1: During his trip, Secretary Panetta will showcase the United States’ commitment to the Asia Pacific. His attendance at both AUSMIN and the ADMM emphasizes the importance of regional architectures that promote peace and stability, as well as the United States’ dedication to such organizations. Panetta’s visit will fortify the United States’ long-term strategic goals in the Asia Pacific, including the transition from the Cold War practice of maintaining permanent military bases to a system of rotational deployments and joint training and exercises with partner countries. This new trend is already visible in the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and increased joint exercises in the region, including the expansion of Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand.

    Q2: What is AUSMIN?

    A2: AUSMIN is the principal annual summit held to discuss the Australia-U.S. alliance, which began with the 1951 signing of the ANZUS Treaty and has substantially deepened since that time. For this year’s 2012 AUSMIN in Perth, Secretaries Panetta and Clinton were joined by their Australian counterparts, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defense Minister Stephen Smith.

    The 2012 AUSMIN agenda covered Asia-Pacific and global security; the importance of regional institutions, including the East Asia Summit, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations; global development efforts; and bilateral defense cooperation.

    Overall, Australia is one of the United States’ strongest allies and supporters. It is likely that the outcomes of AUSMIN 2012 will continue to support a strong U.S. presence in the Asia Pacific in order to ensure regional stability. Australia’s nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council and membership in the G-20 also suggest that the strategies that emerge from AUSMIN 2012 will have a strong global focus.

    Q3: Why is the U.S.-Thailand alliance important and how will Panetta’s trip impact it?

    Secretary Panetta’s trip will reinforce recent efforts to improve relations between the two countries and pave the way for deeper cooperation in the coming years. He will be the first top defense official from the United States to visit the country since 2008, a sign of the mutual effort to inject new attention into the relationship.

    Thailand is the United States’ longest-standing Asian ally, with a partnership lasting nearly 180 years. In 2003, President George W. Bush designated Thailand a major non-NATO ally. The U.S.-Thai relationship is based on shared values and a history of cooperation on regional and international issues such as terrorism, piracy, human trafficking, and nuclear nonproliferation. The United States temporarily halted military support to Thailand following the 2006 coup that ousted then–Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Thai-U.S. relations declined as domestic issues plagued Bangkok. In August 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became the first democratically elected prime minister since the coup, and the political situation has largely stabilized, allowing both the United States and Thailand to refocus attention on the alliance.

    Senior delegations from the United States and Thailand met on October 18 at the Pentagon to conduct the U.S.-Thailand Defense Strategic Talks, releasing a joint statement emphasizing both countries’ commitment to strengthening the Asia-Pacific security environment.

    Thailand plays an exceedingly important role as a U.S. ally and strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region. The Southeast Asian democracy is a key driver of ASEAN’s evolution and is a crucial component of U.S. engagement with the organization. Additionally, Thailand facilitates military-to-military engagement between the United States and regional players by hosting the annual Cobra Gold military exercise, increasing transparency between governments, and reducing the likelihood of conflict due to miscues and miscommunication.

    Q4: What can we expect from the meetings in Cambodia?

    A4: In conjunction with the East Asia Summit, November 18–20, the ADMM will be held November 15–17 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Secretary Panetta will travel to Cambodia on November 16 and meet with his ASEAN counterparts, including Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh. Panetta is expected to discuss areas of mutual cooperation between the United States and Cambodia, as well as broader regional strategy. In a November 12 statement, Panetta said he wanted to “deepen and modernize our existing partnerships and alliances” and emphasized the importance of regional institutions and ASEAN in particular. Sensitive issues like territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not likely to surface as a major component of the discussions.

    Elke Larsen is a research associate, and Alexandra Sander a researcher, with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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