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US to shift naval firepower to Asia-Pacific

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Leon Panetta says Pentagon has enough money in five-year budget plan to facilitate the transition [Reuters]Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, has said that the majority of the country's naval fleet will be based in the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020.

Speaking at a security conference in Singapore on Saturday, Panetta said the assigning of 60 per cent of the fleet comes as  part of a new strategy to increase US presence in the Asia-Pacific.

"Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and is bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region," Panetta said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue conference.

While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta assured his audience at the security conference that current US budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the Pentagon has money in the five-year budget plan to meet these goals.

The boost in ship presence could increase tensions with China, where leaders have said they are unhappy with any larger US presence in the region.

Regional security

A key area of dispute is the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely as its own. But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims there.

The US has pressed for a diplomatic solution to the disagreements but has also made it clear that freedom of navigation is critical in the region.

Panetta tamped down his criticism of China, choosing instead to issue broad warnings about the use of force in the South China Sea to block access.

He praised China and Taiwan for working to improve their relationship across the Taiwan Strait.

He said he is looking forward to visiting China later this year, adding that he wants to see the US and China deepen their military ties, including on anti-drug programmes and humanitarian aid.

Panetta acknowledged that some see an increased US presence in the region as a direct challenge to China. But he said a greater US presence in the Asia-Pacific will benefit China and improve regional security.

Nine-day trip

The increased US naval presence in the Pacific will allow Washington to boost the number and size of the military exercises in the region in the next few years and to plan for more port visits over a wider area, including the
Indian Ocean.

Last year, the US military participated in 172 exercises in the region involving 24 counties.

Currently, the Navy has about 285 ships, with roughly half assigned to each coast, but that total may decline a bit as some ships are retired in the coming years and may not be replaced.

The current fleet includes 11 aircraft carriers, with six assigned to the Pacific.

But those numbers are slated to go down later this year, dipping to 10 carriers, with five assigned to Pacific ports in San Diego, Washington state and Japan.

Panetta, however, said he intends to go back to having six carriers in the Pacific in the coming years. And he said the Pacific will also eventually host a majority of the Navy's cruisers, destroyers, submarines and littoral combat ships, which operate in close to shore.

Panetta is on a nine-day trip across Asia, with planned stops in Vietnam and India.


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