The US, facing a rising China, but a tighter budget, expects to station several combat ships in Singapore and could step up deployments to the Philippines and Thailand, a naval officer said.
The US has been increasingly vocal about defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where tensions over territorial disputes between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations have been on the rise.
In an academic article forecasting the shape of the US Navy in 2025, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert wrote: “We will station several of our newest littoral combat ships” in Singapore.
Greenert said that the US could also step up the periodic deployment of aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon — which is being developed to track submarines — to regional treaty allies the Philippines and Thailand.
“The navy will need innovative approaches to staying forward around the world to address growing concerns about freedom of the seas while being judicious with our resources,” he wrote in this month’s issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine.
“Because we will probably not be able to sustain the financial and diplomatic cost of new main operating bases abroad, the fleet of 2025 will rely more on host-nation ports and other facilities where our ships, aircraft, and crews can refuel, rest, resupply and repair while deployed,” he wrote.
The naval officer did not directly mention China, as part of the policy by US President Barack Obama’s administration to publicly seek a more cooperative relationship with Beijing.
However, the US has laid bare its concerns about China. Obama last month announced that the US would post up to 2,500 marines in the northern Australian city of Darwin between 2016 and 2017, a move criticized by China.
The US also has about 70,000 troops stationed in Japan and South Korea under long-standing alliances, and has offered assistance to the Philippines which launched its newest warship on Wednesday.
Singapore is also a long-standing partner of the US and the US military already operates a small post in the city-state that assists in logistics and exercises for forces in Southeast Asia.
In the article, Greenert described the Gulf monarchy of Bahrain as a model. The US Fifth Fleet is based there, in an area that is strategically close to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
“In 2025 the navy will operate from a larger number of partner nations such as Bahrain to more affordably maintain our forward posture around the world,” he wrote.
The US spent about US$700 billion on its military over the past year, far more than any other country, and many lawmakers accept the need for cuts as operations in Iraq and Afghan wind down.
The Obama administration has identified Asia — full of fast-growing economies and with a still emerging security order — as the key priority for the US.
Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all traveled to Asia in recent months to hammer home the message that the US will not leave the region despite its economic woes at home.
“As the United States puts our fiscal house in order, we are reducing our spending,” Obama said in his speech in Darwin.
However, he added: “Here is what this region must know. As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority.”