SINGAPORE — The United States’ top defense official unveiled for his Asian counterparts on Saturday a plan for redirecting the U.S. military’s focus toward the Pacific, at the start of a week-long trip seen as crucial to the Obama administration’s broader strategic pivot to Asia.
By 2020, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a conference of defense officials from 28 Asia-Pacific countries, the United States will have 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, in contrast to the current 50-50 split.
The strategic shift to Asia aims to use traditional allegiances, as well as budding partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and India, to offset China’s rising military power and assertiveness. But since it was announced in November, the new policy has drawn questions from Asian leaders about what the pivot means, how substantive and permanent it will be and how it may affect countries caught in the struggle between the United States and China for regional influence.
On Saturday, Panetta sought to allay the doubts about the policy that were spurred by a lack of specifics and by looming budget cuts. While he did not provide the level of detail many have demanded, the planned shift in the balance of U.S. naval forces was a concrete new takeaway, clearly intended to lend both symbolic and strategic heft to the pivot to Asia.
But part of the upgrade to a 60 percent Pacific presence will probably be achieved through targeted attrition, with the weight falling in the Atlantic region. The U.S. fleet now stands at roughly 285 battleships, with about half deployed or assigned to the Pacific. Defense officials declined to say exactly how many ships will be deployed in the region by 2020 but insisted that even with cuts, the number would be higher than it is now.
Panetta also pledged to expand U.S. military exercises in the Pacific and port visits in areas such as the Indian Ocean. And he referred to a handful of systems being developed with the Pacific in mind, including a new bomber, an aerial refueling tanker and advanced anti-submarine aircraft.
Upcoming defense cuts will limit any increase of Pacific assets, with $487 billion in cuts expected over the next decade and an additional $500 billion possible unless Congress acts by raising revenue or shrinking other parts of the U.S. budget.
But in comments to reporters, Panetta argued that the new Asia strategy could still have significant impact.
“The budget does encompass what we need,” Panetta said, noting that the new strategy entails less expensive ways of projecting U.S. power into Asia, including military exchanges and short rotations of American troops in strategic countries to shore up alliances.
“We’re moving away from the Cold War strategy where you build permanent bases and basically impose our power on the region,” Panetta said.
The Pentagon recently launched one such rotational deployment in Australia, and others are being discussed in the Philippines and elsewhere, although defense officials declined to specify additional countries.
One key aspect of the plan, Panetta said, is building multilateral ties through economic and diplomatic avenues, as well as militarily. The advantage of working with several other countries at once is the ability to force Beijing to deal with smaller countries in Asia as a collective and to prevent China from bullying them individually when disputes arise, experts say.
“This is not about containment of China,” Panetta said. “This is about bringing China into that relationship to try to deal with common challenges we all face,” such as humanitarian assistance and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Taking a multilateral approach means overcoming significant hurdles that have kept some Asian countries from cooperating in the past, said Dean Cheng, an Asian military analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
“These are countries that often don’t like or trust each other. They have unsettled borders, historical grievances. Some of them can’t even agree on basic things like what to call this sea or that island,” Cheng said. “But you need that cooperation because there’s nothing in the region equivalent to NATO.”
Panetta’s message also included a note of caution to some allies to not misinterpret an expanded U.S. presence as cover for more aggressive actions.
In recent weeks, the Philippines, especially, has taken a more bellicose tone in its fight with China over territories in the South China Sea. The area, rich in oil and natural gas, is increasingly the subject of an acrimonious dispute among several countries attending the Singapore conference.
“We do not take sides on the competing territorial claims,” Panetta told those countries in his address, “but we do want this dispute resolved peacefully.”
China — the country claiming the largest portion of the sea and also attracting the sharpest criticism — sent a low-ranking delegation to the conference. The snub was intended as a signal, said Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Because the conference is so important to the Singaporeans, it’s basically China telling them, ‘You guys need to do more to control your ASEAN brethren — Philippines and Vietnam,’ ” Bower said. “There’s clear nervousness over how Philippines are playing their hand.”
The Obama administration’s overall Asia strategy was developed out of a belief that China responds best to a position of strength, when the United States has other countries working with it. According to senior U.S. officials, the policy reflects an intense study of historical hegemonic shake-ups: the rise of the United States as a global power; Germany’s rise in Europe after World War I; Athens and Sparta. The idea was to turn to history for answers as the United States confronts the next rising superpower: China.
While the “Pivot to Asia” policy last year was meant to reassure Asian allies, many Chinese leaders interpreted it as a U.S. conspiracy to interfere with China’s regional goals and slow its development. The notion of a pivot also prompted concern among European and Middle East leaders that U.S. attention to their regions would wane.
As a result, the administration has discarded the word “pivot” in favor of “Rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific.”
That new term was the title of Panetta’s speech on Saturday and a message he will try to hammer home as he continues on to Vietnam and India.