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, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday, giving the first details of a new U.S. military strategy.
Speaking at an annual security forum in Singapore, Panetta sought to dispel the notion that the shift in U.S. 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.
"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.
Panetta's comments came 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Fleshing out details of the shift to Asia, Panetta said the United States 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.
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 attain the goal.
Panetta underscored the breadth of the U.S. 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 also would 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.