WASHINGTON — The United States plans to deploy some of its newest warships and other high-tech weapons to the Asia-Pacific as part of a strategic shift to the region, a U.S. defense official said Dec. 19.
The Pentagon will send P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft, cruise missiles, Virginia-class submarines, coastal combat ships and F-35 fighter jets to Asian ports and bases in coming years, the senior official told reporters.
“What you’re seeing is part of a bigger effort; the Pacific theater will get the newest weapons systems first,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon has promoted a tilt to Asia after a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reflecting concern over China’s growing military power and its assertive stance in territorial disputes with its neighbors.
The United States already plans to deploy more than half of its fleet to the Asia-Pacific and to station four littoral combat ships — speedy new vessels designed to operate near coastlines — for rotational deployments in Singapore.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Dec. 18 that the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still in development, could be deployed at the Iwakuni air station in Japan’s Yamaguchi prefecture by 2017.
Washington also is providing Japan with another powerful X-band radar to bolster its missile defenses, a move announced in September.
Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia are locked in escalating territorial disputes with China and have sought to bolster military ties to Washington to counter Beijing’s influence.
The senior U.S. defense official, recounting recent talks in Southeast Asian capitals, said governments were watching closely to see how China’s new political and military leadership will handle the territorial arguments.
“There was palpable concern and deep concern” over Beijing’s recent actions on the South China Sea, the official said.
He was referring to tough new maritime rules from China’s Hainan province, a controversial map in new Chinese passports and allegations that Chinese fishing boats cut the seismic cables of a Vietnamese geological survey vessel.
Hainan province adopted new regulations last month allowing local police to board and expel foreign ships entering waters it considers under Chinese jurisdiction.
And Beijing infuriated its neighbors by issuing new passports containing a map showing its claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea.