Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is back in the Pentagon after last week's globe-trotting journey to Japan, China and New Zealand. His mission was to continue the U.S. effort to warm relations with China's People's Liberation Army and keep inching towards better understanding of the PLA's intentions. So, Panetta invited China to send a ship to the RIMPAC in 2014. He doesn't return with a firm yes to the invitation, but with China's military leaders, this is perhaps as good as it gets.
"There were good indicators from the conversation with the Chinese," said one defense official, leaving the U.S. defense officials "hopeful they will accept the invitation." The American official was referring to enthusiasm for the RIMPAC 2014 invitation displayed by Chinese officials during Panetta's meetings in China.
RIMPAC began in 1971. The last exercise was held this summer, with 22 nations, including South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand -- all three are China's neighbors and all three harbor territorial disputes with Beijing.
"I hope that they bring a ship, and I hope that they bring a crew ready to learn and to be interoperable," said Pacific Command's Adm. Sam Locklear, in San Diego.
The invitation is one of many efforts to increase senior-level engagement between American and Asian officials as part of the Pentagon's "rebalancing" -- don't call it the "pivot," officials plead -- to the region.
This year, Panetta already visited Singapore and Vietnam, in June. In November, Panetta turns his Doomsday plane, the E4-B, around for another marathon run to Australia for annual bilateral meetings. The defense official said Panetta on that trip also will visit other Southeast Asian nations, but would not announce those stops yet.
Canadian Forces photo by MCpl Marc-Andre Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera