U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is likely to face sharp questions… (Mandel Ngan, Pool Photo )
WASHINGTON — When a senior U.S. general met in Beijing recently with Lt. Gen. Cai Yingting, the deputy chief of China's armed forces, Cai forcefully objected to America's expanding military presence in Asia and the Pacific, describing it as an effort to encircle his country.
"Why are you containing us?" Cai demanded, according to a U.S. official who was present and described the incident in return for anonymity.
The U.S. general denied seeking to contain China, but it's easy to see why officials in Beijing might get that impression.
The Obama administration is forging closer defense ties to countries near China, including India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore; repositioning troops, planes and ships; and stepping up aid in the South Pacific to offset attention from Beijing.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is likely to face more sharp questions Monday when he arrives in Beijing for talks with Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister, the focal point of a trip that will also take him to Japan and New Zealand.
Panetta is making his first visit to China — but his third trip to the region — since taking over the Pentagon in July 2011, as the administration seeks to shore up alliances and beef up forces to provide a counterweight to China's growing influence in Asia and the Pacific.
In the latest example, U.S. officials said they hoped to resume visits by Navy warships to New Zealand for the first time since 1984. Even though the South Pacific nation is a close American ally, Washington suspended a mutual defense treaty and most military cooperation with Wellington after it passed a law barring vessels carrying nuclear weapons or using nuclear power in its waters.
U.S. officials said they were exploring whether New Zealand might repeal its ban on nuclear-powered ships, which in the U.S. fleet includes submarines and aircraft carriers. But the Pentagon also is considering changing its policy against sending even nonnuclear Navy vessels to New Zealand.
As a result, Panetta will be the first U.S. Defense secretary to visit New Zealand in more than three decades. A resolution of the long-standing dispute would permit more joint naval exercises and training in the South Pacific, U.S. officials say.
"We're in discussions right now, not to bring nuclear weapons to New Zealand but … to help them develop their amphibious capability, which they are very proud of because they consider themselves a southwest Pacific power," the U.S. official said.
Driving the change is an emerging competition for influence in the South Pacific, where China is cultivating tiny island nations by building roads, harbors and other development projects. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton two weeks ago attended a regional forum in the far-flung Cook Islands, northeast of New Zealand.
In public, U.S. officials say they are "rebalancing" forces around the globe now that U.S. troops have left Iraq and are withdrawing from Afghanistan, freeing up military hardware. They say the shift to Asia is aimed not at China, but at the range of security threats, including nuclear-armed North Korea; and at noncombat contingencies, such as humanitarian disasters.
Planners at the Pentagon and at U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees military operations in the region, emphasize that they are not interested in permanent new bases or in a large military footprint. But they are active on multiple fronts.
The Pentagon is reorganizing 9,000 Marines into four task forces to be located in Guam, Hawaii, the Japanese island of Okinawa and, for six-month rotations, at a base on the northern coast of Australia. Three squadrons of F-22 fighters, an advanced jet considered crucial for any engagement with China, will eventually be based in the region.
The Navy will base four new lightly armed ships in Singapore. They will operate in the strategic Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a choke point for the transit of oil and trade, and the energy-rich South China Sea, where territorial jostling between China and other countries has created tension.
The Obama administration is in talks with the Philippine government on regaining access to the Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Base, two Cold War-era installations on or near the South China Sea. Pentagon planners say they are not interested in returning U.S. military personnel permanently to the Philippines but rather see it as a possible logistics hub, especially for humanitarian supplies.
U.S. Pacific Command hopes to regain access to U-Tapao air base in Thailand, which the U.S. used during the Vietnam War to base B-52 bombers. The current plans call for the United States to help the Thais build a humanitarian assistance center, and eventually rotate U.S. troops in on temporary deployments to train with Thai units, U.S. officials said.