As the U.S. winds down its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s military is beginning to shift its focus to areas around China and the South China Sea—a development that is not pleasing to the Chinese government.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke at a conference in Singapore called the Shangri-La Dialogue, which is attended by senior civilian and military leaders from about 30 Asia-Pacific nations. Panetta’s speech was intended to outline the U.S.’s military strategy in upcoming years. Panetta said the U.S. would reposition its Navy fleet by 2020 so that 60 percent of the warships are in the Asia-Pacific region, compared to 50 percent now.
There are currently 282 ships in the U.S. Navy fleet. The number is expected to drop to 276 over the next two years, but eventually will rise to 300, based on Navy shipbuilding plans that have been publicly released.
For its part, China is not pleased with the U.S. plans for its fleet, feeling like the United States is trying to gain an upper hand in the region and fence in China. Since 90 percent of global trade occurs by sea, the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, both consider the movement of ships in the South China Sea an issue of monumental importance.
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Panetta tried to dispel that notion that the U.S. is trying to slow China’s growth.
“We’re not naive about the relationship and neither is China,” Panetta said. “We also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military-to-military) relationships. That’s the kind of mature relationship that we ultimately have to have with China.”