By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will brief allies on the U.S. strategic shift toward Asia and will seek to allay concerns that fiscal uncertainty could undermine Washington's commitment to the effort as he begins a week-long visit to the region this weekend.
With the Asia-Pacific region unsettled by renewed tensions over competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, Panetta flies to Hawaii on Wednesday for briefings with the head of the U.S. Pacific Command before traveling on to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
He later spends two days apiece in Vietnam and India, countries that have become increasingly important to the U.S. push for a rules-based regional order that would protect freedom of navigation and trade while resolving conflicts peacefully.
The trip is Panetta's first to the Asia-Pacific area since the Pentagon issued its new strategic guidance in January calling for a shift in focus toward the region, creating "news and buzz" about the concept, a U.S. defense official said.
"What we're 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 told a news briefing, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Panetta also is likely to address lingering concerns about the U.S. need to reduce its defense budget and whether Washington will be able to maintain its commitment to the region despite soaring deficits.
The Pentagon is under orders to cut planned defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. An additional round of cuts due in January will take another $500 billion over a decade unless Congress acts to stop the reductions by raising revenue or making cuts elsewhere in the U.S. budget
"One of the things you'll hear the secretary addressing specifically is how the rebalance will be resourced and the commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific in the long term," the official said.
The Shangri-La Dialogue brings together senior civilian and military chiefs from nearly 30 Asia-Pacific states to foster security cooperation. Sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, it was first held in 2002 and it takes its name from the host Singapore hotel.
CONCERN IN CHINA
While President Barack Obama's administration insists that the shift in focus is not aimed at any one country, Panetta will have to watch his language in Singapore and Vietnam to avoid heightening Beijing's concerns that the renewed U.S. strategic focus on Asia seeks to contain China's rise as a global power.
"He's going to have to be careful about what he says," said Jonathan Pollack, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank. "It's ... important for the kinds of message that he wants to send, lest there be triggering responses on the part of the Chinese."
Pollack noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparked a spat with China at an ASEAN forum in Vietnam 2010 by pressing the issue of territorial claims in the South China Sea.
While a recently issued U.S. report on China's military power avoided the tendency of earlier documents "toward hyperventilating about China," Pollack said, the strategic guidance released in January heightened Beijing's concerns.
The document lumped China and Iran in the same category as potential U.S. adversaries and also portrayed India as if it were helping to counterbalance China's military power, he said.
"If you are trying to elicit China's involvement to curtail what Iran is doing, to mention the two of them in the same breath, that clearly garners attention on the part of Chinese officials," Pollack said. "So words do count. And ... hopefully he (Panetta) will be careful about what he says."
U.S. defense officials said the New Delhi leg of the trip was aimed at deepening defense ties with India, which was listed in the strategic guidance in January as a country with which the United States wants to have a defense partnership.
"India is the only country we mentioned specifically in the defense strategic guidance as a partner," the official said. "We're moving to an era in which we think defense cooperation with India is just going to be on a steady roll."
Karl Inderfurth, a South Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the mention of India in the strategic guidance was a signal the United States wants New Delhi's help to build stability in the region.
"India got a shout out in the new strategic guidance that other countries did not," he said. "The United States is looking to India for more than defense trade ... It is looking to India to contribute as a provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region."
Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia affairs, said India was evaluating its capabilities and thinking about possible roles, and was interested in expanding defense cooperation with the United States.
New Delhi is likely to do so on its own terms in a way that would ease any concerns from Beijing about an anti-China grouping.
Indian officials will have probing questions for Panetta about Afghanistan, Inderfurth said. India is concerned that a U.S. pullout before Afghan forces are ready to take over security requirements could destabilize the country, allowing it to again become a haven for Islamic extremists bent on spreading their influence in Kashmir.
"They are very concerned that if the U.S. departs and doesn't do it responsibly ... that the Afghan security forces will not be up to the challenge, and that they will be back to a time when a radical Islamic regime is established," he said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)