Panetta departs for Asia defense strategy trip

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta boards his plane at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii on Thursday.

Story highlights

  • Panetta plans to brief friends and allies on new defense strategy
  • His first stop is Singapore, where he plans to deliver a major policy speech
  • He also plans to meet with military leaders from the region
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta departed Thursday for a trip to Asia aimed at updating friends and allies about Washington's new Pacific-oriented defense strategy.
It is the secretary's second trip to the region since taking office. He is expected to return late next week.
Before boarding the 12-hour flight across the Pacific, Panetta spoke to about 250 civilian and military personnel at Hawaii's Camp H.M. Smith, home of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Panetta told those gathered that Hawaii is a "key point" in the U.S. military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
The secretary also met with the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Sam Locklear, who plans to join Panetta for much of the trip.
The first stop is Singapore, where Panetta is expected to deliver a major policy speech focusing on the role of the United States and its defense strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a senior defense official who briefed reporters about the trip.
"Basically the core of what we are trying to do with the swing through Asia is to give a comprehensive account to partners and everyone in the region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will mean in practice," the official said Wednesday.
The scheduled speech is at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which covers regional defense and security issues as well as global threats like terrorism and piracy.
Panetta also is scheduled to meet with military leaders from Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia and perhaps China. "It's a good opportunity for the secretary to meet his counterparts, we'll have to see who the Chinese send," said a second senior defense official who also briefed the media.
"If the opportunity is there and the schedules can support, we welcome that opportunity, as we have in the past."
Much of the secretary's schedule at the Shangri-La Dialogue is still unclear because there will be so many officials from various Asian nations, and nailing down specific meetings is still being worked out.
After Singapore, Panetta flies to Vietnam to meet with senior leaders there.
"We're going to be able to thank the Vietnamese for their continual great assistance on remains recovery and other importation issues," the first official said, referring to Vietnam's cooperation in finding the remains of American servicemen missing since the war there nearly 50 years ago.
The United States and Vietnam have been working for 17 years on normalization of their relations, and the official says those relations are "really healthy."
From Vietnam, the secretary plans to go to India for his last stop. He plans to spend two days there meeting with top officials in New Dehli and "he'll be giving one major speech in India as well," the official said.
"India is the only country we mention in the defense strategic guidance as a partner. And we are really shifting to a point at which our defense interactions with India are becoming routine."