Panetta Details Pentagon’s Pacific Pivot

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Saturday said that the Pentagon will assign about 60 percent of Navy warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, part of a broader U.S. strategy to rebalance its diplomatic and military attention toward the region. From The Associated Press:

While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta assured his audience at a security conference in Singapore that U.S. budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the Defense Department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.

Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue conference, Panetta provided some of the first real details of the Pentagon’s impending pivot to the Pacific.

“It will take years for these concepts, and many of the investments that I just detailed, but we are making those investment in order that they be fully realized,” Panetta said in a speech opening the conference. “Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States is rebalancing and is bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region.”

While Panetta stopped short of calling out China directly, instead addressing issues on the in broad strokes and even insisting that America’s renewed interest in the region was not aimed at China, U.S. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman said China lacked maturity on the issue during an interview at the conference with Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin:

Both senators said that China’s arguments and actions regarding the South China Sea show that China is not yet willing or able to play the role of a great power. For example, the Chinese repeatedly promise to adhere to the code of conduct on maritime disputes, but meanwhile the Chinese government is trying to resolve the disputes by exerting pressure on smaller countries bilaterally and outside of the purview of international legal structures.

“The problem with that is there are overlapping claims and somebody is going to lose out if the Chinese are able to orchestrate that,” McCain said. “This is a very crucial time to see what China’s behavior will be.”

China also continues to play an unhelpful role in the international effort to solve other big problems, such as with Syria and North Korea, McCain said. “That is not the behavior of a mature superpower.”

The Chinese assert that their claims to the South China Sea are justified by international law but then they refuse to yield to international bodies to adjudicate those disputes, which shows they really have little willingness to engage in a fair process to solve the problem, Lieberman said.

For its part, China reminded US officials to choose their words carefully. From The People’s Daily:

Although the US has insisted that its strategic shift to the region is not targeted at China, experts said Washington’s deeds, including its plan to highlight the South China Sea issue at an annual regional security meeting at the weekend, exposed its true intentions.

Asked about Panetta’s Asian trip, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a news briefing on Thursday that China hoped the US would “play a positive and constructive role in the region”.

“We also hope the US will respect China’s interests and concerns in the region,” he added.

See also commentary from Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of International Crisis Group, who has been tweeting from the conference via the hashtag #IISS_Asia.

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