US shift ‘must be watched closely’ [People’s Daily]

By Zhang Haizhou in Singapore and Zhao Shengnan in Beijing  (China Daily)

June 04, 2012 

China has capability to ‘strike back when interests are under threat’

Despite the United States claiming that its naval shift to the Asia-Pacific is not designed at containing China, Washington’s strategy needs closer attention amid a tense maritime situation, analysts said.

The US will reposition its naval forces so that 60 percent of them will be in the Pacific by 2020, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the 11th Asia Security Summit in Singapore on Saturday, giving the first details of a new US military strategy announced in January.

Currently, the US fleet of 285 ships is almost evenly split between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

When asked if the shift in strategy is a challenge to China, Panetta was adamant. "I reject that view entirely," he said.

China said it would improve the capability of its forces and has the capacity to "strike back" when "fundamental interests" are under threat.

Ren Haiquan, a People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant-General, who led the Chinese delegation to the Singapore forum, said on Saturday that Washington’s planned naval redeployment is neither something "desperately serious" nor something that "doesn’t matter".

"We still face a very complex, sometimes severe, situation.  We will be prepared for all complexities.  There’s a saying: work for the best and prepare for the worst," said Ren, who is also vice-president of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing.

"We will also improve our military strategy, our national defense and the PLA’s fighting ability.  We will not attack unless we are attacked," he told reporters at the forum.

"We have the measures to strike back when fundamental national interests are under threat," he said.

Panetta’s announcement came at a time when Asia-Pacific powers are involved in occasional territorial disputes.  Chinese fishermen were harassed by Philippine warships in territorial waters off China’s Huangyan Island, in the South China Sea.

About 2,500 US Marines will be deployed in Australia and there may be a similar arrangement in the Philippines…

Panetta’s announcement sent the clearest signal yet that the rebalancing of US strategic focus is real, Chris Johnson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Wall Street Journal.

Wang Peiran, a visiting scholar on security studies at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, said it was a deterrent.

"It’s deterrence, like telling regional powers to avoid any recklessness.”

Redeployment to the Asia-Pacific means the US role in the region will be "more than just policing, it will be like a security officer", Wang added.

Navy officials closely guard the location of their vessels, and US defense officials would not say what parts of the Atlantic fleet would be repositioned.

"It’s not really that big a shift as Panetta stated, and the main factors one should look out for are what assets are going to be shifted," said Gary Li, a London-based intelligence and military analyst with Exclusive Analysis, a business intelligence agency.

"Panetta mentioned carriers, destroyers and cruisers but what about submarines? Where they are going to be based? Basing them in Pearl Harbor is not as threatening as basing them in Guam. And how are they going to be used?" Li said.

Washington is likely to position warships far from China, Tao Wenzhao, from the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

"What really matters is not the distance to China, but US equipment and activity in the Asia-Pacific region, an area which it regards as less stable than the Atlantic region," he said.

"The shift is not wholly against China, but China is definitely one of its targets."

Despite budget cuts that are projected to shrink Pentagon spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years, the US will develop new weapons to help shore up the US presence in Asia, Panetta said.

Yet, Panetta sought to dispel the notion that the US is against an emerging China, saying "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," he said, acknowledging differences between the world’s two largest economies on a range of issues, including the South China Sea.

Despite Washington’s increasing military presence in the region, it is not likely to change its neutral position on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, said Niu Jun, a professor of international politics at Peking University.

"Washington is strengthening ties with its Asian allies, but it can also restrain its allies from confronting China — that would be constructive."

Last year, the US Pacific Command conducted 172 military exercises with 24 different countries, a number Panetta promised would increase in the coming years.

In addition to Australia and the Philippines, the US is looking at other countries, which Panetta didn’t name, as possible partners for bases. But the new bases aren’t designed for a permanent American presence.

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