'More US warships in Asia-Pacific under new strategy'
By David Alexander, Reuters
Posted at 06/02/2012 3:48 PM | Updated as of 06/02/2012 3:48 PM
* Asia focus not an attempt to contain China, says US defense chief
* U.S. committed to six aircraft carriers in the region
* More exercises, expanding partnerships
SINGAPORE- The United States will keep six aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific and move a majority of its other warships to the region in the coming years, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday as he offered details of a new U.S. military strategy for the first time.
Speaking to an annual security forum in Singapore, Panetta also sought to dispel the notion that the shift in U.S. focus to the Asia-Pacific was part of an American effort to contain China's emergence as a global power.
"I reject that view entirely. Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible with the development and growth of China," Panetta said in remarks prepared for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference that draws senior civilian and military leaders from 30 nations.
Panetta's comments came at the outset of a seven-day visit to the region to explain to allies and partners the practical meaning of a U.S. 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 Manila and Beijing in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippine coast.
China has downgraded its representation to the Shangri-La Dialogue compared to last year, when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attended and met with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This year the Chinese military was represented by the vice president of Academy of Military Sciences.
Panetta, on the other hand, was accompanied by General Martin Dempsey, the U.S. military's top officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, who leads U.S. forces in the region.
Panetta said he was committed to building a "healthy, stable, reliable and continuous" military-to-military relationship with China, but he underscored the importance of Beijing supporting a rules-based system to clarify rights in the region and help to peacefully 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.
SIX AIRCRAFT CARRIERS
Fleshing out details of the U.S. shift to Asia, Panetta told officials attending the Singapore conference that the United States would reposition its Navy fleet in the coming years so that by 2020, 60 percent of its warships would be assigned to the Asia-Pacific region, versus about 50 percent now.
He said the Navy would maintain six aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific. Six of the Navy's 11 carriers are currently assigned to the Pacific, but that number will fall to five when the USS Enterprise retires this year.
Panetta's announcement means the number of carriers in the Pacific will rise to six again when the new carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is completed in 2015.
The U.S. Navy had a fleet of 282 ships including support vessels as of March this year. That number was expected to slip to about 276 over the next two years before beginning to rise again toward the Navy's goal of a 300-ship fleet, according to a 30-year Navy shipbuilding projection released in March.
But officials warned that fiscal constraints and continuing problems with cost overruns could make it difficult to attain the goal of a 300-ship fleet over the course of the 30-year period.
Panetta underscored the breadth of the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific, noting Washington's treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia as well as its partnerships with India, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries.
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 the United States also would work to increase the number and size of bilateral and multilateral training exercises it conducts in the region. Officials said last year the United States carried out 172 such exercises in the region.
The U.S. defense secretary also sought to address concerns that the Washington might be unable to meet its commitments to the region because of tightening defense budgets and fiscal uncertainty.
"The Department of Defense has in our five-year budget plan a detailed blueprint for implementing this strategy, realizing our long-term goals in this region and still meeting our fiscal responsibilities," Panetta said. (Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)