By Sara Schonhardt
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the United States will shift the bulk of its warships to the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years as part of a new military rebalancing to guarantee a strong and continued U.S. presence in the region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday the United States will move 60 percent of its naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific by 2020. Currently, its fleet of 285 cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines is evenly divided between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Panetta laid out the plan in a speech Saturday to regional allies at the 11th International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
“Our approach to achieving the long-term goal in the Asia-Pacific is to stay firmly committed to a basic set of shared principles, principles that promote international rules and order to advance peace and security in the region,” said Panetta.
The country’s scaled back defense budget will shrink Pentagon spending by $487 billion over the next decade, but Panetta said the United States will use its resources to enhance the technology of its weapons systems and replace old ships with new, more advanced ones.
No China challenge
He said the U.S. was also committed to building a healthy, stable and reliable military-to-military relationship with China.
Beijing has balked at a larger U.S. presence in the rapidly developing region, but Panetta sought to dispel perceptions that the rebalancing is a way of challenging China’s increasing power.
“I reject that view entirely. Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible, fully compatible with the development and growth of China,” said Panetta.
China has been seen as flexing its military muscle in the region in recent years, by among other things, stirring up territorial disputes over the resource-rich South China Sea. Although the Philippines, Vietnam and several other countries stake claims to the area, China claims it as its own.
Panetta said China was a key to developing a peaceful, prosperous and secure Asia-Pacific by “respecting” the maritime rules that have governed the region for decades.
Among other topics, Panetta underlined a key treaty alliance with South Korea, emphasizing that the U.S. military presence there would not be reduced despite a drop in the overall size of its ground forces in the coming years.
On military-to-military ties, the U.S. defense secretary said the United States would enhance its cooperation with Thailand, which hosts an annual military exercise called Cobra Gold. Last year, the U.S. Pacific Command conducted 172 military exercises with more than 20 different countries and plans to increase the number and size of these events in the Asia-Pacific.
Some analysts say a global shift in defense spending is another reason the United States may want to play a larger role in the region. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, which hosted the dialogue, predicts that defense spending in Asia will surpass that of Europe this year.
Most of the region’s defense ministers attended the conference with the exception of China, which sent a top official from the Academy of Military Sciences. During a regular Foreign Ministry briefing Thursday, however, Chinese government spokesman Liu Weimin commented on Panetta’s visit.
“China respects the presence and interests in the Asia-Pacific and hopes it will play a positive role in this region. We also hope the U.S. will respect China’s interests and concerns in this region,” said Liu.
The U.S. defense secretary will now go on to Vietnam and India. On the latter stop, he is expected to discuss ways to deepen the defense partnership with New Delhi.