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Updated: June 12, 2012 16:05 IST

U.S. unveils military boost in Asia

Jane Perlez
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U.S. naval ships in the Andaman Sea off the coast to Myanmar for humanitarian operations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in this May, 2008 photo.
Photo: AFP U.S. naval ships in the Andaman Sea off the coast to Myanmar for humanitarian operations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in this May, 2008 photo.

Bulk of Navy to be based in the Pacific

U.S. Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta, seeking to persuade a sceptical audience of Asian officials that the United States is committed to enhancing its military presence in the region despite coming budget constraints, unveiled here on Saturday the most detailed inventory to date of planned new weapons for the region.

The Navy, Mr. Panetta said, would reconfigure its forces from a 50-50 split between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific to 60 per cent of the Navy's assets assigned to the Pacific Ocean.

The renewed emphasis on the Pacific would involve six aircraft carriers, and a majority of the Navy's cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines. These would be fortified by an increase in the number and size of military exercises in the Pacific, and a greater number of port visits.

The inventory Mr. Panetta outlined was presented to Asian Defence Ministers, uniformed officers, analysts and contractors at the annual meeting of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The list did not contain previously undisclosed weapons systems but represented a fuller public description and compilation of what the Obama administration has called the “pivot” toward Asia, a word that some Asian countries have complained is confusing. In deference to the unease, Mr. Panetta referred to a “rebalancing” toward Asia.

“Make no mistake in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region,” Mr. Panetta said. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, he said, projected that for the first time this year, total military spending by all countries in Asia would surpass that of all military expenditures in Europe.

Some nations represented at the gathering have expressed scepticism that given the budget demands in Washington, the Obama administration would be able to deliver on its promises.

Others have questioned the wisdom of the stepped-up military emphasis, arguing that it appears intended to force a confrontation with China, a situation feared by many countries in the region, all of which enjoy strong trade ties with China.

As Obama administration officials have said in the past, Mr. Panetta insisted the renewed U.S. interest in the Asia Pacific region was not aimed at China. But few in the audience said they believed that.

“What worries us is having to choose we don't want to be put in that position,” said the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Marty Natalegawa. “The Pacific is sufficiently accommodating to provide not only for the role of China and the United States but of emerging powers, too.”

Among the specific new weapons Mr. Panetta mentioned were the advanced fifth-generation aircraft known as the Joint Strike Fighter, the enhanced Virginia-class fast-attack submarine that can operate in shallow and deep waters, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons.

Such weapons would give the United States the freedom to manoeuvre in areas where access was denied, Mr. Panetta said. This was an indirect reference to China's efforts to develop an “anti-access, area-denial” policy using diesel electric attack submarines and other weapons intended to curb the United States' ability to get close to China's shores.

Mr. Panetta was accompanied by an unusually heavyweight American delegation.

In contrast, China sent a much weaker line-up than last year when the Defence Minister, General Liang Guanglie, attended.

The reason for the relatively low level of Chinese representation was a subject of wide speculation. Some delegates said they thought the domestic political uncertainties involving the senior Communist Party leadership kept senior officials at home. — New York Times News Service

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