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May 27, 2017

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Panetta touts US military ties at ASEAN talks

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Friday sought to promote Washington's strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar as he met counterparts in the region.

The U.S. tilt to Asia reflects a concerted effort by President Barack Obama's administration to assert American influence in the face of China's growing economic and military might.

"The message I have conveyed on this visit is that the United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is real, it is sustainable, and it will be ongoing for a long period of time," Panetta said.

The U.S. is deepening its military engagement with allies in the region, he told reporters after talks with counterparts from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — including Myanmar — in Cambodia.

He said the Pentagon would increase the size and number of its defense exercises with its Southeast Asian partners.

Fresh from re-election victory, Obama will arrive in the region next week for a historic visit to Myanmar before joining his top diplomat Hillary Clinton in Cambodia for an Asia-Pacific summit.

Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president ever to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma, following a series of dramatic political changes in the former pariah state, which is emerging from decades of military rule.

Pentagon officials are considering reviving military ties with Myanmar to cooperate on nonlethal programs focused on medicine, education and disaster relief exercises.

The activities would be "limited in scope" at the outset, said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We'll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform. We need to see continued progress," the official said.

Myanmar is also expected to be invited to observe Cobra Gold, the largest U.S. multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific. It brings together thousands of troops from the U.S., Thailand and other countries for field training.

Panetta's trip, which included earlier stops in Australia and Thailand, came as China unveiled a new leadership team headed by Xi Jinping.

The overtures to Myanmar's leaders are a source of concern for China, as the country — along with North Korea — had remained firmly in Beijing's orbit and off-limits to the Americans until now, analysts and officials said.

"From China's perspective, enhancing U.S.-Burma security ties takes on greater significance because it was one of the few countries in China's periphery that Beijing had a near monopoly on military, economic, and diplomatic relations," said Andrew Scobell, an expert at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation think tank.

"Now, with a U.S.-Burmese rapprochement well under way, China's leaders believe they are being outmuscled by the United States in yet another location around their periphery," he told AFP.

The United States is pushing for a peaceful, multilateral resolution of territorial disputes pitting China against its neighbors over potentially resource-rich waters.

"We want these disputes solved peacefully in accordance with international law but we do take issue with coercion," the unnamed defense official said.

Washington's diplomatic initiatives to Myanmar and Cambodia come despite concerns over human rights in both countries, with U.S. officials lobbying Cambodian leader Hun Sen to end a crackdown on dissidents and protests.

Panetta stressed the need for "the protection of human rights, respect for the rule of law, and for full participation in the political process here in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia."

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