US ships headed for Asia

‘Repositioning not aimed to contain China’

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US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

SINGAPORE—The United States will move the majority of its warships to the Asia-Pacific in coming years and keep six aircraft carriers in the region, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said here on Saturday, giving the first details of a new military strategy to increase US presence in Asia.

Panetta provided some of the first real details of the Pentagon’s impending pivot to the Pacific. He said the US would reposition its Navy fleet so that 60 percent of its warships would be assigned to the region by 2020, compared to about 50 percent now.

The Navy would maintain six aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific. Six of its 11 carriers are now assigned to the Pacific but that number will fall to five when the USS Enterprise retires this year.

The number will return to six when the new carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is completed in 2015.

Speaking at an annual security forum in Singapore, Panetta sought to dispel the notion that the shift in US focus to Asia was designed to contain China’s emergence as a global power. He acknowledged differences between the world’s two largest economies on a range of issues, including the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

“We’re not naive about the relationship and neither is China,” Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual meeting of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, attended by senior civilian and military leaders from about 30 Asia-Pacific nations.

“We also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military-to-military) relationships,” he said in a speech opening the conference.

“That’s the kind of mature relationship that we ultimately have to have with China,” Panetta said.

The boost in ship presence could increase tensions with China, where leaders have said they are unhappy with any larger US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some Chinese officials have been critical of the US shift of military emphasis to Asia, seeing it as an attempt to fence in the country and frustrate Beijing’s territorial claims.

Overlapping claims

Panetta’s comments came at the start of a seven-day visit to Asia to explain to allies and partners the practical meaning of the US military strategy unveiled in January that calls for rebalancing American forces to focus on the Pacific.

The trip, which includes stops in Vietnam and India, comes at a time of renewed tensions over competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, with the Philippines, a major US ally, and China in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) near the Philippine coast.

The South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely as its own, is also a key area of dispute with Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei which also have territorial claims there.

The US has pressed for a diplomatic solution to the disagreements but has also made it clear that freedom of navigation is critical in the region.

Other delegates said that while the South China Sea is a flashpoint, with about 90 percent of global trade moving by sea, protecting the teeming shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca is equally vital.

“Maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few,” Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony told the forum.

“We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community,” he said.

Overlapping maritime claims—often fuelled by hunger for oil, gas, fish and other resources—are compounded by threats from pirates and militants, delegates said.

Critical role

China has downgraded its representation to the Shangri-La Dialogue from last year, when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attended and met then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This year the Chinese military was represented by the vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences.

Panetta, by contrast, was accompanied by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the US military’s top officer as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of the US Pacific Command.

Overall, however, Panetta tamped down his criticism of China, choosing instead to issue broad warnings about the use of force in the South China Sea to block access. He praised China and Taiwan for working to improve their relationship across the Taiwan Strait.

He said he was looking forward to visiting China later this year, adding that he wants to see the US and China deepen their military ties, including on counterdrug programs and humanitarian aid.

Panetta said he was committed to a “healthy, stable, reliable and continuous” military-to-military relationship with China but underscored the need for Beijing to support a system to clarify rights in the region and help resolve disputes.

“China has a critical role to play in advancing security and prosperity by respecting the rules-based order that has served the region for six decades,” he said.

Fleet rebalancing

Panetta acknowledged that some see the increased presence of the US in the region as a direct challenge to China. But he rejected that view, saying that a greater US presence in the Asia-Pacific will benefit China and improve regional security.

The increased US naval presence in the Pacific will allow the US to boost the number and size of military exercises in the region in the next few years and to plan for more port visits over a wider area, including the Indian Ocean. Last year, the US military participated in 172 exercises in the region involving 24 counties.

Budget problems, cutbacks

The US Navy has a fleet of 282 ships, including support vessels, as of March. That is expected to slip to about 276 over the next two years before beginning to rise toward the goal of a 300-ship fleet, according to a 30-year Navy shipbuilding projection released in March.

But officials have warned that fiscal constraints and problems with cost overruns could make it difficult to attain the goal.

While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta assured his audience that US budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the US defense department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.

“It will take years for these concepts, and many of the investments that I just detailed, but we are making those investment in order that they be fully realized,” Panetta said.

“Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and is bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region,” he said.

His promises, however, are likely to be met with skepticism from some nations that are aware of the coming budget cuts and have watched the US send the bulk of its military might to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Rotational deployment

Panetta underscored the breadth of the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, noting treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, as well as partnerships with India, Singapore, Indonesia and others.

He said the United States would attempt to build on those partnerships with cooperative arrangements like the rotational deployment agreement it has with Australia and is working on with the Philippines.

Panetta said Washington would also work to increase the number and size of bilateral and multilateral military training exercises it conducts in the region. Officials said that last year, the US carried out 172 such exercises in the region.  With a report from Reuters

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