WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans on April 5 to deploy combat ships to Singapore for joint exercises, which he said showed U.S. commitment to the strategically vital Asia-Pacific region.
The announcement came a day after Panetta met Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen at the Pentagon, and while the first of 2,500 U.S. Marines sent to Australia were starting work — to the irritation of regional superpower China.
“The Defense Department’s move to deploy U.S. combat ships to Singapore and raise the level of joint exercises will deepen the bilateral military relationship,” said a joint statement from the defense chiefs.
“The deployment signals U.S. commitment to the region and enhances the ability to train and engage with regional partners,” it said.
“Both leaders underscored the shared belief that a strong U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region enhances regional stability and security.”
The United States signaled last December that it could send the littoral combat ships, small, surface vessels intended for operations close to shore, to Singapore.
The Pentagon statement said the ships would be deployed on a rotational basis and will not be based in Singapore, which is a long-standing ally of the United States.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, said “the specific details related to this unprecedented engagement are still being discussed,” but noted that it marked a “significant movement in terms of our cooperation.”
The U.S. military already operates a small post in Singapore that assists in logistics and exercises for forces in Southeast Asia.
China’s defense ministry, however, has been scornful over increased American military activity in Asia, saying it is proof of a “Cold War mentality” from Washington.
Chinese state media has also accused President Barack Obama of using such action to act as a distraction from U.S. economic woes.
The U.S. views with increasing concern China’s growing assertiveness in territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the South China Sea.
The deployment of Marines to Australia has reassured some Asian countries, who see it as a statement that the United States intends to stand up for its allies and interests.
China maintains it has a policy of “peaceful development” with all countries.
In an academic article forecasting the shape of the U.S. Navy in 2025, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, wrote in December 2011 that “we will station several of our newest littoral combat ships” in Singapore.