US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore on June 2 (Pic: Videograb from www.iiss.org)
A lot is being read into Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement in Singapore during the Shangri La Dialogue (June 1-3) that the United States will increase the strength of its naval forces in the Pacific by ten percent to 60 percent by 2020.
The Shangri La Dialogue is organized by the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) which brings together defense chiefs of various Asia Pacific countries to discuss wide ranging security issues and strategies.
“And by 2020 the Navy will reposture 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. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines,” Panetta said during his address at the Dialogue.
Strategic experts in the region say that Panetta’s announcement is likely to reinforce Beijing’s suspicion that this is part of Washington’s long-term plan to encircle China. As if to sharpen that suspicion Panetta also said, “Our forward-deployed forces are the core of our commitment to this region and we will, as I said, sharpen the technological edge of our forces. These forces are also backed up by our ability to rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.”
Chinese generals could not be blamed for thinking that their country was the reason why the US was stepping up its naval combat presence. Although the rise of ten percent is not regarded as that significant, it is the symbolism of the action that could be problematic.
In the same speech Panetta said, “I will travel to India to affirm our interest in building a strong security relationship with a country I believe will play a decisive role in shaping the security and prosperity of the 21st century.” Once again if I were a Chinese general predisposed towards the idea of US-led encirclement I would use that comment about India playing a decisive role as one more piece of the puzzle.
But then Panetta took care to clarify saying, “I know that many in the region and across the world are closely watching the United States-China relationship. Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on the Asia-Pacific region as some kind of challenge to China. I reject that view entirely. Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible – fully compatible – with the development and growth of China. Indeed, increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity for the future.”
Would that reassure China? That is hard to say. As I said if the Chinese military leadership is already primed to believe encirclement to be a real strategy, then Panetta’s announcement of increasing the strength of combat ships would only serve to confirm that belief.
It was noted by some that China did not send its Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie to attend the Singapore dialogue. While the rest of the participants were represented by their defense chiefs, China sent Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan, a senior military academic. India was represented by its Defense Minister A K Antony. While some might conclude that sending Lt. Gen. Ren was Beijing’s way expressing displeasure even though it said General Liang’s domestic commitments kept him from the Shangri La Dialogue, others say not much should be read into it.
One way or the other, with the U.S. ending its war in Iraq and in the process of drawing down from Afghanistan, it is looking for new areas to make its presence felt.