Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Saturday vowed the US military would maintain a “robust” presence across Asia that includes new high-tech weaponry to protect allies and safeguard shipping lanes.
Seeking to reassure Asian countries mindful of China’s growing power and Washington’s fiscal troubles, Gates told a security conference in Singapore that Washington’s commitment to the region would not be scaled back.
Instead, the US military would expand its presence, sharing facilities with Australia in the Indian Ocean and deploying new littoral combat ships (LCS) to Singapore where it has regular access to naval facilities, he said.
The LCS is a speedy, lighter ship designed to operate in shallow coastal waters. The waters around Singapore, a staunch US ally, are among the world’s busiest commercial sea lanes.
Singapore’s defence ministry told AFP the US was exploring the deployment of “one or two” vessels usually manned by 75 crew per ship.
“The LCS is expected to make other port calls in the region to engage regional navies through activities such as exercises and exchanges,” the ministry said in an emailed reply.
Gates said the US was also considering “prepositioning” supplies to improve disaster response in the region, which has been hit in recent years by a slew of natural disasters including the massive March quake and tsunami in Japan.
The Defense Secretary, who steps down at the end of the month after more than four years in office, said the US military will conduct more port calls and training programmes with Asian countries as part of its security commitment.
His speech, made before he flew later Saturday to Kabul, came as countries facing a rising China watch the US for signs of its long-term security plans in Asia, amid mounting disputes over territorial rights in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.
Gates warned that clashes may erupt in the South China Sea unless nations with conflicting territorial claims adopt a mechanism to settle disputes peacefully.
“I fear that without rules of the road, without agreed approaches to deal with these problems, that there will be clashes. I think that serves nobody’s interests,” he said.
On the US presence in Asia, Gates cited investments in radar-evading aircraft, surveillance drones, warships and space and cyber weapons as proof that Washington was “putting our money where our mouth is with respect to this part of the world — and will continue to do so”.
The planned weapons programmes represent “capabilities most relevant to preserving the security, sovereignty, and freedom of our allies and partners in the region”, he said.
They also include maintaining America’s nuclear “deterrence” amid continuing concern over North Korea’s atomic weapons.
Senior US officials have long pointed to China’s military buildup, saying Beijing’s pursuit of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as cyber warfare capabilities pose a potential threat to US naval power in the region.
Without naming China, Gates said the new hardware was a response to “the prospect that new and disruptive technologies and weapons could be employed to deny US forces access to key sea routes and lines of communications”.
Although the Pentagon’s budget would come under growing scrutiny and military spending in some areas would be cut back, Gates predicted that investments in the key “modernisation” programmes would be left untouched.
This would ensure “that we will continue to meet our commitments as a 21st century Asia-Pacific nation — with appropriate forces, posture, and presence”, he said.
Gates held talks with his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie on the sidelines of the Singapore meeting.
He said efforts to promote a security dialogue with Beijing had borne fruit and military relations had steadily improved in recent months.
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