The U.S. defense secretary held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings with counterparts from several nations. Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen notified Panetta that Singapore had agreed in principle to a U.S. request to forward deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore on a rotational basis.
A senior U.S. defense official said later that the series of meetings “served the broader purpose to advance this overlapping network of mutually reinforcing relationships that the U.S. is building in the region.”
Panetta was at the start of a seven-day visit to the region to explain to allies and partners the practical meaning of the U.S. military strategy unveiled in January that calls for rebalancing American forces to focus on the Pacific.
The trip includes stops in India and Vietnam, where he will visit a U.S. Navy cargo ship in Cam Ranh Bay, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit the former American naval base since the end of the Vietnam war.
Panetta’s Asia visit comes at a time of renewed tensions over competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, with the Philippines, a major U.S. ally, and China in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippine coast.
Panetta met Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on the sidelines of the conference and discussed areas of future cooperation, including maritime awareness and cyberspace, and called for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute.
The South China Sea is a flashpoint but, with about 90 percent of global trade moving by sea, protecting the teeming shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca is equally vital.
“Maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few,” Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the forum. “We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community.”