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China 'wary' of U.S. focus on Pacific military power

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 8:47 PM EDT, Mon June 4, 2012
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joins Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh at a ceremony Monday in Hanoi.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joins Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh at a ceremony Monday in Hanoi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The United States must respect regional interests in Asia, China's foreign ministry says
  • U.S. military forces will shift toward the Pacific in coming years
  • President Barack Obama announced the new strategy in November

(CNN) -- The United States is "not in step with the times" in seeking to bolster its military presence in the Pacific region, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Spokesman Liu Weimin's statement comes on the heels of the weekend announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that 60% of the U.S. naval fleet will sail the Pacific by 2020.

The change is part of President Barack Obama's decision to reorient the United States' strategic attention to the economically vital Pacific after a decade of war in the Middle East.

The fleet is currently divided evenly between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Panetta said.

Liu welcomed a U.S. role in the region, so long as the country respects the interests of China and other countries there. But he said the trend in Asia today is peace and cooperation, not military buildup.

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"Deliberate emphasis on military and security agendas, and strengthening military deployment and alliances are not in step with the times," he said.

Obama announced the shift to a Pacific focus during a tour of Asian countries in November.

The announcement came against a backdrop of reduced defense spending as the United States was dealing with economic issues at home, preparing to pull out of Iraq and contemplating the end of warfare in Afghanistan.

Panetta visits former U.S. base in Vietnam

"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," Obama said in a November 17 speech in Australia. "As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia Pacific."

At the time, Obama announced plans for the United States to station up to 2,500 Marines in Australia in the coming years.

Panetta is on an eight-day trip through the region explaining the U.S. policy, and seeking to increase military ties with regional allies. He said the shift is not a threat to China and its growing military power.

"I reject that view entirely," Panetta said. "Indeed, increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China."

He also rejected arguments that helping U.S. allies in the region militarily is an invitation to greater tensions.

"I don't think we should take the attitude that just because we improve their capabilities that we are asking for more trouble," he said.

Panetta said the United States will work to improve communication with China with an aim to "build trust" between the two nations, and he emphasized diplomatic approaches to promoting open commerce and freedom of the seas.

A key issue in the region is the conflict between China and various regional nations -- such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan -- over the South China Sea.

The area, nicknamed "the second Persian Gulf" because of its potential for massive oil and gas reserves, is also a key passageway for the world's oil and is home to enormously valuable fisheries.

A crisis in the area has the potential for major economic damage to the United States as well. As one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, disputes in the South China Sea could have a major impact on shipping by forcing costly rerouting.

According to estimates by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, $5.3 trillion worth of trade goods pass through the South China Sea each year; U.S. trade goods account for $1.2 trillion.

CNN's Liz Neisloss contributed to this report.

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