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Sunday, 3 June 2012

US naval fleet to shift towards Pacific by 2020

New strategy: The US plans to shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith dismissed fears the move would stoke tensions with China. Picture: AP AP

SHIFTING FOCUS:While the US plans a ‘new strategic focus’ in Asia, China warned that now is not the time to ‘make waves’ in the South China Sea, which it claims


US fighter jets take off from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class USS George Washington for joint military exercises between the US and South Korea in the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea) on June 26, 2010.

China’s Xinhua news agency warned yesterday it was no time to “make waves” in the disputed South China Sea, after the US said it would shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific Ocean by 2020.

“It is advisable for some to refrain from muddying the waters and fishing therein,” said Xinhua, referring to the sea, which is part of the Pacific and the subject of overlapping territorial claims.

China claims the sea in full, and it is also claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“As regards the South China Sea tensions, it is some other claimants, whether emboldened by the United States’ new posture or not, that sparked the fire and have been stoking the flames,” the agency said.

It was Beijing’s “genuine wish” to turn the South China Sea “into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” Xinhua added.

The commentary was a reaction to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta telling a summit in Singapore yesterday that the US would shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific as part of a new strategic focus on Asia,

The decision to deploy more ships to the Pacific Ocean, along with expanding a network of military partnerships, was part of a “steady, deliberate” effort to bolster the US role in an area deemed vital to the US’ future, he said.

He insisted the switch in strategy was not a challenge to China, saying both countries had a common interest in promoting security and trade in the region.

“By 2020, the navy will re-posture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans,” Panetta said.

“That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines,” he added.

The US Navy currently has a fleet of 285 ships, with about half of those vessels deployed or assigned to the Pacific.

Although the total size of the overall fleet might decline in coming years depending on budget pressures, Pentagon officials said the number of US naval ships in the Pacific would rise in absolute terms.

The US also planned to expand military exercises in the Pacific and to conduct more port visits over a wider area extending to the Indian Ocean.

Panetta was speaking to mainly Asian defense officials and officers from 27 countries at the Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual summit organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Unlike previous summits, China chose not to send a high-level delegation to the event, prompting speculation as to what lay behind the move.

Since US President Barack Obama unveiled plans in January to shift toward Asia, the Pentagon has offered up few details about how it intends to achieve that goal.

Yesterday’s announcement on the future of the US fleet provided the clearest evidence yet of a shift to Asia, and the speech appeared designed to reassure allies that Washington would back its much-publicized “pivot” to Asia with tangible action.

In his speech, Panetta said budget woes in Washington would not affect the plan to tilt towards Asia, which he said would take years to fully realize.

The US planned new investments in capabilities needed “to project power and operate in the Asia-Pacific,” including radar-evading fighter jets, a new long-distance bomber, electronic warfare and missile defenses, he said.

“But make no mistake — in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way — the United States military is rebalancing and is bringing an enhanced capability and development to this vital region,” he added.

Military commanders are revising doctrine to take into account new weapons that “could deny our forces access to key sea routes and lines of communication,” Panetta said.

Amid a growing US-China rivalry, US officials privately acknowledge the push for a larger military footprint is meant to reinforce US diplomacy when confronting Beijing’s assertive stance in the South China Sea.

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