Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is set to tell Asian and European defense chiefs about the military’s new U.S. "pivot" to Asia, a response to China’s growing military power, during a major speech in Singapore on Saturday.
Panetta’s speech will avoid using the word "pivot" and instead couch the U.S. shift toward the Pacific as a "rebalancing" of forces in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The semantic change followed complaints from China, where military spokesmen have said the U.S. buildup will set off a new arms race. It also came amid expressions of concern from states in the Middle East and Europe who fear the U.S. pivot will mean a move away from their regions.
Senior defense and intelligence officials attending the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting will be focused on any clues in the speech signaling whether Panetta will commit the necessary funds to building several key weapons systems currently on the drawing board. Funding the new U.S. arms would signal whether the U.S. Asia pivot is backed by new military forces or is largely rhetorical, said one defense official.
The Pentagon’s new strategy for Asia is built on the new Air Sea Battle Concept that calls for closer integration of U.S. Air Force and Navy power to counter what the Pentagon calls China’s "anti-access" and "area denial" weaponry. They include anti-satellite missiles and lasers, cyber warfare capabilities, anti-ship ballistic missiles for use against aircraft carriers at long ranges, and large submarine forces.
The Pentagon has played down the battle concept as not solely directed at China. However, a senior U.S. official described Air Sea Battle as similar to the U.S. military’s Cold War Maritime Strategy that was used to aggressively challenge Soviet naval forces around the world.
Panetta approved the concept in November. However, sharp Pentagon budget cuts are raising questions about whether the concept will be implemented.
Among the key weapons systems considered to be the major components of the Air Sea Battle are a new long-range strategic bomber dubbed the B-3 and a new fighter-bomber for both the Air Force and Navy called the F/A-XX and termed the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft.
The new strike jet is needed as a replacement for the F/A-18 and the F-22, which was canceled after 187 aircraft were purchased.
The Air Force also is quietly working on counterspace capabilities for use against China’s satellites, including a satellite with precision maneuverability.
China’s state-run military press has criticized the new Air Sea Battle Concept as a U.S. plot to subvert China’s development. For example, Chinese Rear Adm. Yang Yi said in December that Air Sea Battle was a U.S. plot to seize the strategic initiative for a future military competition by building advanced weapons such as unmanned aircraft, electronic warfare missiles, cyber warfare weapons, and directed energy arms.
"More ominously," Yi said, "the U.S. uses the Air-Sea Battle combat theory to reestablish a military alliance that is reminiscent of the Cold War."
A defense official told reporters Tuesday that a goal of the visit is to explain in detail the U.S. military shift to Asia. "The core of what we’re trying to do in this swing through Asia is give a comprehensive account to everyone in the region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific [region] will mean in practice," the defense official said.
President Obama announced in November that a small contingent of Marines would be deployed in northern Australia. Other proposed steps include the deployment of several U.S. Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore and a naval and warplane buildup in Guam and other bases in Asia.
Panetta is not expected to discuss in detail future U.S. military plans for Asia. "He's not going to get into a lot of specifics about we're going to have this many guys here or this many there," a senior defense official said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, asked about Panetta’s visit to the region, said in Beijing Thursday that China expects the United States to "play a positive and constructive role in the region."
"We also hope the U.S. will respect China's interests and concerns in the region," he said.
It is not known whether China will send its defense minister to the conference in Singapore. In the past, China’s military sought to shun the conference of defense chiefs by sending a lower ranking official.
The Panetta visit comes amid growing tensions between China and the Philippines over a disputed South China Sea fishing area called Scarborough Reef, which both nations claim.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said in Phnom Penh on Wednesday that the reef China calls Huangyan Island is "an inherent part of Chinese territory."
China has sent armed maritime patrol ships to the reef after Philippines authorities tried to arrest Chinese fishermen in the waters in April.
Panetta will travel to Vietnam and India during the trip. Both countries hold growing fears of China’s military buildup.
India is currently building up its forces with new aircraft and other weaponry, including the purchase of U.S.-made P-8 anti-submarine warfare jets.
Vietnam is purchasing a large number of submarines that Hanoi hopes will help protect its claims in the South China Sea against Chinese encroachment.
White House officials intervened in Panetta’s speeches and talking points, especially as they relate to China, said a defense official who said National Security Council staff aide Evan Medeiros, a key soft line policy official on China, was the main Obama administration figure in charge of moderating the tone of Panetta’s speeches.
A senior defense official on Tuesday sought to play down the threat posed by China. "None of our policies in the Asia-Pacific are going to be about one country," the official said.
"That is really not the world we're living in from a defense perspective," the official said. "We're focused, along with most of the allies and partners we have, and actually most of the region, on sort of what's the rules-based order for how things progress in the Asia-Pacific as it continues to grow in importance, not just for the region itself but for the whole world, and very importantly, for the United States."
For decades liberal policymakers in government have sought to downplay the threat posed by China’s communist-dominated military buildup, claiming that any reaction by the United States will in fact create a new threat.
Other more conservative officials, however, are pushing for Reagan-era "peace through strength" policies toward China, designed to signal to the emerging communist superpower that the United States will not be forced out of Asia and abandon democratic allies and friends in the region.
The U.S. military push in Asia is being couched as designed to support freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and aimed at maintaining the decades-long stability nurtured by the U.S. military presence.
"And the secretary will be talking a lot about that and a lot about how we, through our partnerships, through where we are, being in the region as part of the Asia-Pacific region, how the United States contributes to building and enforcing that kind of an order and having, you now, just overall stability. So that's some of what you're going to hear in the speech," the senior official said.
The official said Panetta is willing to meet with Chinese defense leaders at the Singapore meeting, but China has not indicated who will attend.
On the South China Sea disputes, the defense official said Panetta recently met with Philippines officials, and the issue will be a major topic of discussion among defense chiefs.
"I think the current situation in the South China Sea is bound to feature in discussions—not just our discussions but discussions among the countries, discussion at Shangri-La," the official said.