Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday that he expects conflict and disputes with China as the United States bolsters forces in the Pacific.
Outlining the U.S. shift to Asia from the Middle East, Panetta said the Pentagon is seeking to cooperate with China and does not intend to counter China’s rise.
"So that's what we're intent on doing here with China, is to build that kind of relationship recognizing that we're going to have disputes, recognizing that we're going to have conflicts, but also recognizing that it is in the interest of both China and the United States to resolve these issues in a peaceful way," Panetta said during a speech to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue meeting of defense ministers and military officials.
"That's the only key to advancing their prosperity and to advancing our prosperity," he said.
The speech was the defense secretary’s effort to explain what he called a new, "deeper and more enduring partnership role in advancing the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region."
To that end, U.S. military forces are "rebalancing" to the region, he said.
The speech sought to play down the focus of the shift in countering China’s new high-tech military arms, which include missiles, advanced conventional weapons, and a strategic nuclear buildup that Chinese military officials say is aimed mainly at diminishing the United States’ status as the premier military power in Asia.
Panetta said that, after a decade of war following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the al Qaeda leadership that directed the strikes is "severely weakened," and its ability to attack has been reduced. The war in Iraq has ended, and Afghanistan’s security forces are beginning to transition to a lead role there, he added.
Defense budget cuts of $487 billion over 10 years and a looming additional cut of $600 billion helped prompt a new defense strategy of what Panetta said will be smaller and leaner forces that will employ advanced technology.
During the shift to Asia, rotational deployments will be carried out to maintain a strong military presence in other regions.
"We will also invest: invest in cyber, invest in space, invest in unnamed systems, invest in special forces operations," Panetta said. "We will invest in the newest technology, and we will invest in the ability to mobilize quickly if necessary."
Panetta said the new strategy is not directly aimed at China but seeks to maintain stability and promote "freedom of navigation," an indirect reference to Chinese efforts to control large areas of international waters near Chinese coasts.
Panetta sought to play down the focus of the military rebalancing and said the Pentagon would seek to strengthen ties with the Chinese.
"We in the United States are clear-eyed about the challenges, make no mistake about it, but we also seek to grasp the opportunities that can come from closer cooperation and a closer relationship," he said.
The goal of military exchanges with China will be to improve "strategic trust," he said.
On the view that the U.S. shift is challenging China’s drive for supremacy in the region, Panetta said, "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," Panetta said.
However, China’s communist government, according to state-controlled press reporting on the Asia shift, has portrayed the plan for greater involvement as an effort to contain China’s growing power.
On the growing tensions between China and the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Panetta said the United States is closely watching the events.
China has deployed large numbers of fishing vessels and maritime patrol craft to the waters, and the Philippines has responded with one patrol boat of its own.
China’s military recently announced that the shoal is Chinese territory.
"The U.S. position is clear and consistent: We call for restraint and for diplomatic resolution; we oppose provocation; we oppose coercion; and we oppose the use of force," Panetta said.
He noted that the United States has adopted a neutral position on the dispute, despite the fact that the United States has a mutual defense agreement with Manila.
On a U.S. force buildup, Panetta said aging Navy ships will be replaced with more than 40 new warships, and the number of military exercises will be increased in the coming years, along with more port visits, including in the Indian Ocean.
Panetta also repeated the previously announced plan to shift the number of aircraft carriers in the region from a 50-50, Atlantic-Pacific deployment to a 60-40 Pacific-Atlantic lineup.
Additional forces will include "an advanced fifth-generation fighter, an enhanced Virginia-class submarine, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons."
"We recognize the challenges of operating over the Pacific's vast distances," he said. "That is why we are investing in new aerial-refueling tankers, a new bomber, and advanced maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft."
Panetta said the new forces will be operating under a new Joint Operational Access Concept and the related Air-Sea Battle Concept that Pentagon officials said are designed to counter China’s anti-access and area-denial weapons.
Those weapons include missiles that can hit aircraft carriers from long distances, anti-satellite weapons, cyber warfare capabilities, and submarines and warships.
Asked during a question session by a Chinese military officer how the Pentagon will develop ties to the Chinese military, Panetta said he hopes for greater transparency between the two armed services.
"With regards to China, our relationship with China, we approach it in a very clear-eyed way," he said. "We're not naïve about the relationship and neither is China. We both understand the differences we have. We both understand the conflicts we have, but 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 mil-to-mil relationships."