SINGAPORE – From this island nation in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sent a message Saturday that America's new military focus on the Asia-Pacific is not intended to raise tensions in the region or threaten Beijing.
The Pentagon chief appeared to offer an olive branch to the communist power and said often feuding rivals must learn to work better together for the benefit of the entire region.
Delivering his most extensive thoughts to date on the fragile state of U.S.-China relations, Panetta said neither side is naive about their disagreements.
"We both understand the differences we have, we both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military) relationship," Panetta said at a security conference in Singapore.
At the same time, however, Panetta said Asian nations must find a way to resolve their own conflicts because the U.S. cannot always come charging in to help.
Tensions between the U.S. and China reverberate across the region, and are often focused on America's support of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province and threatens to use force to block any Taiwanese bid for formal independence.
Another area of dispute is the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely as its own. But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims.
More recently the U.S. has been vocal in blaming China for cyberattacks that emanate from the country and steal critical data from U.S. government agencies and private American companies.
On that front, Panetta said U.S. and Chinese leaders have talked about developing teams that can work together on difficult issues. That could involve how to exchange information on computer-based threats and whether they can agree on standards for the use of cybercapabilities.
The goal, Panetta said, is for the U.S. and China to develop the ability to communicate when disputes arise so that they can be resolved peacefully.
Defense experts attending the conference questioned Panetta extensively about China, with one query coming from a member of China's People's Liberation Army. But officials also noted that Beijing did not send any of its senior leaders to the conference. It was not clear why, although some officials suggested that China's leaders were busy with internal issues.
Questioners asked whether adding more U.S. military to the region might embolden some smaller nations and risk triggering more conflicts. They also wondered aloud whether China's leaders boycotted the conference in protest over America's new strategy for the region.
"I don't think we should take the attitude that just because we improve their capabilities that we're asking for more trouble," Panetta said.
Panetta also issued a strong call for Asian nations to set up a code of conduct, including rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the South China Sea, and then develop a forum where disputes can be settled.
"It isn't enough for the United States to come charging in and try and resolve these issues," Panetta said, adding that the Asian nations must develop ways to peacefully solve their own problems.
Panetta's speech was designed to give a more detailed explanation about the new defense strategy. It puts more focus on the Asia-Pacific, including plans to increase the number of U.S. military personnel, warships and other assets in the region over the next several years.
Specifically, he said that by 2020, about 60 percent of the fleet will be assigned there as part of a new strategy to increase U.S. presence in Asia. Currently, the Navy has about 285 ships, with roughly half assigned to each coast, but that total may decline a bit as some ships are retired in the coming years and may not be replaced.
The current fleet includes 11 aircraft carriers, with six assigned to the Pacific. The West Coast total is expected to go down to five, but Panetta said he will maintain six carriers in the Pacific over the long term.
While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta said that U.S. budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the U.S. Defense Department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.
He said he is looking forward to visiting China later this year, adding that he wants to see the U.S. and China deepen their military ties, including on counterdrug programs and humanitarian aid.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned Panetta's optimism about relations with China, but said he hopes it works out. He added that the Pentagon must begin planning for the possibility that an additional $500 million may have to be cut from the defense budget early next year if lawmakers can't agree on spending cuts in the next several months.
Panetta has said he believes Congress will eventually find a way to avoid the automatic cuts.
Singapore is Panetta's second stop on a nine-day trip through Asia, and is expected to travel to Vietnam and India.