SINGAPORE The United States will shift a majority of its warships to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday, giving the first details of a new U.S. military strategy.
Fleshing out details of a strategic pivot to Asia announced in January, Panetta said the United States would reposition its Navy fleet so 60 percent of its battleships would be assigned there, up from about 50 percent now, while maintaining six aircraft carriers in the region.
The U.S. defense 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 U.S. 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 Defence Minister Liang Guanglie attended and met then-U.S. 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 General Martin Dempsey, the military's top officer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command.
The U.S. Defense Secretary was at the start of a seven-day visit to the region to explain to allies and partners the practical meaning of the 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 the Philippines, a major U.S. ally, and China in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippine coast.
Panetta met Philippines Defense 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.
The South China Sea is a flashpoint but, 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 Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the forum. "We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community."
Overlapping maritime claims - often fuelled by hunger for oil, gas, fish and other resources - are compounded by threats from pirates and militants, delegates said.
Panetta also met Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin and Japanese Defense Vice Minister Shu Watanabe on the sidelines of the conference. They issued a statement saying North Korean provocations like its April missile launch "pose a serious threat to the peace and stability" of the region and the world.
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.
"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.
Under the plans Panetta announced on Saturday, the Navy would maintain six aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific. Six of its 11 carriers are now assigned to the Pacific but that 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.
The U.S. Navy had 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 warned that fiscal constraints and problems with cost overruns could make it difficult to meet that goal. U.S. Senator John McCain told a news conference he was concerned about the decline in the size of the U.S. fleet.
"At some point - and I think we may be at that point - we are not going to be able to carry out the kinds of commitments to the region that the secretary outlined in his speech," said McCain, a top Republican senator on defense issues.
Panetta underscored the breadth of the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, 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 last year the United States carried out 172 such exercises in the region.
(Additional reporting by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Daniel Magnowski)