Overlapping maritime claims - often fueled by hunger for oil, gas, fish and other resources - are compounded by threats from pirates and militants, delegates said.
Panetta said he was committed to a “healthy, stable, reliable and continuous” military-to-military relationship with China but underscored the need for Beijing to support a system to clarify rights in the region and help to resolve disputes.
“China has a critical role to play in advancing security and prosperity by respecting the rules-based order that has served the region for six decades,” he said.
Under the plans Panetta announced on Saturday, the Navy would maintain six aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific. Six of its 11 carriers are now assigned to the Pacific but that will fall to five when the USS Enterprise retires this year.
The number will return to six when the new carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is completed in 2015.
The U.S. Navy had a fleet of 282 active ships, including support vessels, as of March. That is expected to slip to about 276 over the next two years before beginning to rise toward the goal of a 300-ship fleet, according to a 30-year Navy shipbuilding projection released in March.
Critics have contended with the plan’s reliability. And officials have warned that fiscal constraints and problems with cost overruns could make it difficult to meet that goal. U.S. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) told a news conference he was concerned about the decline in the size of the U.S. fleet.
“At some point - and I think we may be at that point - we are not going to be able to carry out the kinds of commitments to the region that the secretary outlined in his speech,” said McCain, a top Republican senator on defense issues.
Panetta underscored the breadth of the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, noting treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia as well as partnerships with India, Singapore, Indonesia and others.
He said the United States would attempt to build on those partnerships with cooperative arrangements like the rotational deployment agreement it has with Australia, and is working on with the Philippines.