SINGAPORE – As the U.S. seeks to reassert its role as a Pacific power after a decade of distant ground wars, the Obama administration has run into a problem: It’s hard to convince allies and rivals that the enhanced military commitment to Asia is sufficiently serious.
The Pentagon will replace older warships and add eight new ships to the Pacific fleet by 2020, but it plans only modest increases in other U.S. forces to a vast region that is increasingly anxious about China’s growing political and military clout and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
In a policy speech today to an annual gathering of Asian defense officials, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sought to reassure allies that the “pivot” to the western Pacific and East Asia that President Barack Obama promised during a visit to the region in November represented a substantial new effort, and not political spin.
Panetta urged his counterparts not to focus on the figures alone, but to look at America’s renewed commitment to protecting some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes.
“I would encourage you to look at the increasing technological capabilities of our forces as much as their numbers in judging the full measure of our security presence and the measure of our commitment,” Panetta said at the news conference.
He said advanced new weapons systems – including F-35 fighter jets now under development and fast-attack Virginia-class submarines – will provide “our forces with freedom of maneuver in areas in which our access and freedom of action may be threatened.”
As part of the plan, the Navy will base four lightly armed ships in Singapore. They will operate in the Strait of Malacca, a strategic choke point for global transit of oil, and the energy-rich South China Sea, where territorial jostling between China and other countries has raised tensions.
Panetta also will visit Vietnam and India on his trip in what U.S. officials describe as an effort to deepen military ties with both nations.