Senior US defence officials also told the Sunday Morning Post that Panetta would today visit Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, a move that will be closely watched by Beijing.
Speaking to the informal Shangri-La Dialogue on security in Singapore, Panetta also vowed to push for deeper military relations with China and insisted that Beijing should not fear Washington’s growing role as a Pacific power.
The top Chinese official at the Singapore event, Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, told Phoenix TV that while China should not take the move lightly, he wouldn’t call it a “big deal”.
Panetta said the quota of US warships in the Asia-Pacific would rise from the current 50 per cent to 60 per cent by the end of the decade.
“That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines,” he said.
The navy has about 285 ships, but the total may fall as ships are retired without being replaced.
Ren, vice-president of the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army, said: “It seems to me the overall naval strength [in the region] would be more or less the same – it is a 10 per cent increase… but you have to take into account that they are downsizing their total number [of battleships and planes after withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq].”
Still, he said, China should not drop its guard.
Xinhua warned it was no time to “make waves” in the disputed South China Sea.
Panetta defended efforts to deepen and broaden US alliances.
Confirming his visit to Cam Ranh Bay – the first by a US official to the port since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 – officials also said the Pentagon chief would board the USNS Richard E Byrd, a civilian supply ship being repaired at a shipyard there.
The South China Morning Post reported yesterday that Panetta was expected to push for greater access for US ships during his trip.
Panetta spoke repeatedly yesterday of the shared Sino-US interest in a stable and peaceful region, but at the same time said neither side was naive about their differences.
In contrast to previous years, when Chinese officials and scholars questioned Panetta’s predecessors about their “cold war mentality” or attempts to contain China, he faced no such attacks from the unusually low-level Chinese delegation this time.
Ren’s academy colleague Senior Colonel Bao Bin said China welcomed the US playing a role in regional peace and stability.Greg Torode
South China Morning Post