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US will put more warships in Asia: Panetta

03 June, 2012

SINGAPORE/BEIJING: The United States (US) will shift a majority of its warships to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday, giving the first details of a new US military strategy.

Fleshing out details of a strategic shift to Asia announced in January, Panetta said the US would maintain six aircraft carriers in the region over the long run and rebalance its fleet so that 60 percent of its other warships would be assigned to the Pacific by 2020, compared to 50 percent now.

The US defence secretary, speaking at an annual security forum in Singapore, also sought to dispel the notion that the shift, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, 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.

"We're not naive about the relationship and neither is China," Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue 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. "That's the kind of mature relationship that we ultimately have to have with China."

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.

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

Panetta, by contrast, was accompanied by General Martin Dempsey, the military's top officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the US Pacific Command.

The US defence secretary held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings with counterparts from several nations. Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen notified Panetta that his country had agreed in principle to a US request to forward deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore on a rotational basis.

A senior US defence official said later that the series of meetings "served the broader purpose to advance this overlapping network of mutually reinforcing relationships that the US is building in the region".

Panetta was at the start of a seven-day visit to the region 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.

Panetta's Asia visit 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 near the Philippine coast.

Panetta met Philippines Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on the sidelines of the conference and discussed areas of future cooperation, including maritime awareness and cyberspace, and called for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute.

"Maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few," Indian Defence Minister AK Antony told the forum. "We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community."

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 to resolve disputes.

Meanwhile, China's official news agency warned it was no time to "make waves" in the disputed South China Sea. "It is advisable for some to refrain from muddying the waters and fishing therein," said Xinhua.

China claims the sea in full, and it is also claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

"As regards the South China Sea tensions, it is some other claimants, whether emboldened by the United States' new posture or not, that sparked the fire and have been stoking the flames," said the agency.


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