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SINGAPORE - The United States will shift the majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told a summit in Singapore on Saturday.
The decision to deploy more ships to the Pacific Ocean, along with expanding a network of military partnerships, was part of a "steady, deliberate" effort to bolster the US role in an area deemed vital to America's future, he said.
Panetta said "by 2020, the Navy will re-posture its forces from today's roughly 50-50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60-40 split between those oceans -- including six aircraft carriers, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines."
The US Navy currently has a fleet of 285 ships, with about half of those vessels deployed or assigned to the Pacific.
Although the total size of the overall fleet may decline in coming years depending on budget pressures, Pentagon officials said the number of naval ships in the Pacific would rise in absolute terms.
The United States also planned to increase the number of military exercises in the Pacific and to conduct more port visits over a wider area extending to the Indian Ocean.
Panetta was speaking to defense officials from across the region at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a summit organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The speech appeared designed to reassure partners and allies worried about Beijing's rise and more assertive stance in the South China Sea that Washington's much-publicised "pivot" to Asia would be backed by concrete action.
Budget woes in Washington would not affect the plan to tilt towards Asia, Panetta said.
"The Department of Defence has in our five-year budget plan a detailed blueprint for implementing this strategy, realising our long-term goals in this region, and still meeting our fiscal responsibilities," Panetta said.
The Pentagon planned "to make new investments in the capabilities needed to project power and operate in the Asia-Pacific," including radar-evading fighter jets, a new long-distance bomber, electronic warfare and missile defences, he said.
But the project would take time to take root, in the form of new doctrine and weaponry.
"It will take years for these concepts, and many of the investments we are making, to be fully realised.
"But make no mistake -- in a steady, deliberate, and sustainable way -- the United States military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region," he said.
Military commanders are revising doctrine to take into account new weapons "that could deny US forces access to key sea routes and lines of communication," he said.
Amid a growing US-China rivalry, American officials privately acknowledge the push for a larger US military footprint is meant to reinforce American diplomacy when confronting Beijing's assertive stance in the South China Sea.
But Panetta insisted that Washington wanted dialogue with Beijing and not conflict.
"Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on Asia-Pacific as a challenge to China. I reject that view entirely," he said.
"Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible with the development and growth of China. Indeed, increased US involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity," he said.
But in laying out core US principles in the region, Panetta made clear Washington opposed any attempt by Beijing to make unilateral moves in its push for territorial rights in the oil-rich South China Sea.
Disputes had to be resolved through agreed-upon rules among all countries and based on international law, he said.
The United States was committed to "open access by all to the shared domains of sea, air, space, and cyberspace" and that disputes be solved "without coercion or the use of force."
Panetta also said the United States is "paying close attention to the situation in Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea," where the Philippines and China have been locked in an argument over territorial rights.
A number of other countries also have territorial claims in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.