Power Play

06.02.12

Leon Panetta: U.S. Navy Is ‘Re-Balancing’ to Asia

At a Singapore summit, Defense Secretary Leon Panettta announced a bold new focus of the Navy’s resources on the Pacific. Dan Levin on why a Chinese land dispute has the region on edge.

Standing before an auditorium of defense ministers, generals, and politicians from across Asia and the West in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta gave the most detailed description yet of America’s new military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The speech was intended to soothe China, which is suspicious of an American presence in the region, but also calm the fears of Asian allies wary of Beijing’s rising power. A highlight of the new strategy will be a boost in “force projection,” allocating 60 percent of the Navy’s warships to the Pacific by 2020—up from a current 50 percent.

Panetta sought to clarify the Obama administration’s previously stated intent to “pivot” toward Asia by saying the U.S. will return in greater force to a region long a major focus of American military strength. 

“Make no mistake—in a steady, deliberate, and sustainable way—the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region,” Panetta said.

Mindful of Beijing’s repeated claims that the U.S. is seeking to contain China and meddle with its core interests, Panetta grounded the new strategy in geographic legitimacy. “We take on this role not as a distant power but as part of the Pacific family of nations,” he told those gathered for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Panetta’s declaration comes at a time of increasing tension in the region as China and the Philippines are locked in a diplomatic tussle over an outcropping in the South China Sea. Both countries claim the shoal as their own, though what’s at stake goes far beyond some rocks. Beneath the sea’s waves lie immense deposits of oil and gas, while the surface is a major international shipping route: $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. trade passes through the sea each year. A number of other Asian nations that border the sea, including Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia also have territorial claims and are watching the dispute warily. 

“The Chinese don’t want to be caught against a wall and forced to show their hand.”

The dispute has triggered something of an arms race in the region as Asian nations scramble to protect themselves in light of China’s growing military prowess. Citing the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Panetta stated that this year total projected military spending by all Asian nations would surpass that of Europe for the first time. 

Throughout the day, in panel sessions and in hushed discussions in hallways, U.S. officials and their allies pressed for diplomatic progress on a host of issues from the South China Sea to North Korea. 

But the elephant in every room was China, which this year declined to send a top-level government or military official to the conference. Some observers have interpreted this as a deliberate slight so as to avoid a confrontation that might upset the Chinese government’s carefully laid plans.

“The Chinese don’t want to be caught against a wall and forced to show their hand,” said an analyst who asked to remain unidentified because of the political sensitivity of the issue. “They prefer to operate behind closed doors in the setting of their own choosing.”

In his speech, Panetta denied that the U.S. rebalancing was all about China, instead focusing on the importance Asia will play in a modern era where American interests are tightly interwoven with the global economy. “In this century, the 21st century, the U.S. recognizes our prosperity and our security depends even more on the Asia-Pacific region,” Panetta said. 

Those were common themes of Panetta’s speech, which delineated a military doctrine that protects international order while deepening and broadening bilateral and multilateral relationships in Asia. 

Other U.S. officials were less guarded in their criticism of China. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, was in attendance along with Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Both supported the new strategy and said it would help the world promote peace. 

“We need to find a middle path that doesn’t allow China to bully its neighbors,” said Lieberman in an interview. Speaking of the current maritime dispute, he said, “If it gets worse and affects our ability to do commerce in the South China Sea, it would have a devastating affect on our economy.”

During his speech, Panetta decreed that the U.S. intends to replace retiring ships with the most technologically advanced fleet available and send them to the Pacific. In a few years, he said, six aircraft carriers will ply the region along with a majority of the Navy’s cruisers, submarines, destroyers, and littoral combat ships. 

The U.S. military buildup in Asia is nothing new, Panetta said, but rather a return to region that has been home to an American presence for six decades: “We were here then, we are here now, and we will be here in the future.”