U.S.Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shakes hands with China's Vice President Xi Jinping before meeting September 19 in Beijing, China. Panetta is on a three-nation tour of Japan, China and New Zealand.

This past Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta returned from a weeklong trip around the Asia-Pacific region.  The timing and subject matter of the trip have been the subjects of extensive scrutiny and analysis in the foreign policy world, given the fragile and dynamic state of affairs in this corner of the world in recent months. Panetta’s journey follows Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to the Asia-Pacific last month and is his third to the region in the past year, illuminating just how serious the Obama administration is in pursuing a comprehensive ‘strategic pivot to Asia’ in coming years.

Secretary Panetta’s trip included stops in Japan, China, and New Zealand. Another flare-up between Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, however, soon came to dominate a substantial portion of the trip’s agenda and much of its press coverage. Tensions have been heightening in recent days as both Japan and the PRC have engaged in round after round of escalating naval and diplomatic brinksmanship over the desolate and isolated islands.  At stake are both national prestige and the potentially resource-rich waters surrounding the islands. Secretary Panetta

In sum, Secretary Panetta’s trip hit on several security concerns regarding the U.S.-China relationship. The immediate concern is Japan’s status as a treaty ally of the United States placing it under the security umbrella of the U.S. military. When taken in light of recent events in the East China Sea, this is a complicating factor due to the strong currents of Japanese-Chinese nationalism and the growing risk of conflict. While Panetta joined Secretary Clinton in calling on China to support a robust framework to resolve the gamut of maritime territorial disputes in the Pacific, the persistence of these issues and their refusal to subside in recent months suggests more needs to be done to ensure regional security. Right now, there is security dilemma gaining steam between China, the U.S. and its treaty allies (Japan, South Korea, Japan)and the ASEAN bloc over territorial claims in the Pacific Ocean. With the specter of mounting nationalism threatening to spin out of control and increasing risk of military miscalculation and/or accidents at sea, the risk of an entangling regional conflagration involving the U.S. is a real risk.  Compromise is desperately needed somewhere for the security of Asia-Pacific relations.

Related Stories:



Image: http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/09/defense-china-unveils-stealth-fighter-091912/

-William Kyle