China looms as Panetta pitches new security vision to Pacific partners

One country is at the forefront as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the other Asian defense chiefs gather in Singapore for the Shangri-La security talks this weekend.

China's global economic prowess and its military's recent aggressive actions in the region will likely be the main topics of discussion during the three-day conference among top U.S. and international defense officials.

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Beijing's shadow will loom large over the conference as Panetta attempts to sell the White House's new Pacific-focused national security strategy to its regional allies.

"We believe China is a key to being able to develop a peaceful, prosperous, and secure Asia-Pacific in the 21st century," Panetta said Saturday in his remarks at the conference. "Both of our nations recognize that the relationship -- this relationship between the United States and China is one of the most important in the world."

U.S. defense officials from Panetta on down have publicly sought opportunities for military cooperation with Beijing, culminating in the first visit by a Chinese defense minister to Washington in nearly a decade. Panetta said that he is "looking forward to traveling there soon at the invitation of the Chinese government."

But those efforts are cast against an Obama administration that has taken efforts to stiffen its position against China, both militarily and economically.

China has also begun to flex its military might in places like the South China Sea while continuing to pursue advanced weapon systems that could rival those in the American arsenal. 

How Panetta strikes that chord between condemning the Chinese military's aggressiveness, while still signaling that the U.S. is not China’s enemy, will be key in convincing America's regional partners in the Pacific to back the administration's new Pacific strategy.

One major task will be to secure the backing of Asian allies for the influx of American troops into the region in the coming years.

In April, the Marines officially stood up its new outpost in the Pacific in Darwin, Australia. Roughly 200 Marines arrived at the base on April 4. The Darwin facility is expected to house more than 2,500 Marines once all deployments are complete. 

Hundreds of Marines are also expected to flood into the Philippines as part of the service’s growing focus on the region, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in March. 

The Navy is also preparing to send four next-generation littoral combat ships to Singapore to further extend the U.S. military presence.

But long-time allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, have bristled at the idea of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines setting up camp in their countries.

Public outcry eventually prompted DOD leaders to reduce the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa and move those Marines to the U.S. base on Guam. 

Filipino protesters, particularly in the southern part of the country, have begun to lash out at Manila's long-standing military relationship with the United States. 

An influx of more American troops in the Pacific could sour relations between Washington and its regional allies -- relations which the Pentagon and the White House argue are critical to carrying out President Obama's strategy. 

But the Pentagon's plans for those incoming forces will be much different from what the military has done in the past, Panetta said Thursday. 

The rotational deployments that will be used to move U.S. troops in and out of the Pacific will help ease concerns of allied countries wary of hosting a long-term American military presence, Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta said DOD will work with regional allies to coordinate the timing and duration of U.S. deployments in the Pacific so "that we strengthen the partnerships for the future." Those talks will likely continue during the Singapore meeting. 

Aside from the future U.S. military footprint in the Pacific, defense leaders will also use the Shangri-La talks to try and decipher the growing problem in the South China Sea. 

In April, Beijing sent three warships to a section of the South China Sea, off the northwest coast of the Philippines, to support a Chinese fishing ship being detained by the Philippine navy.

Claiming territorial sovereignty over the coastal waters where the Chinese fishing vessel was detained, Manila has deployed an additional warship to the area.

As that standoff continues, Beijing's continued investment in advanced military hardware, from fifth-generation fighters to aircraft carriers, has only fueled those tensions.

"The U.S. position is clear and consistent: we call for restraint and for diplomatic resolution; we oppose provocation; we oppose coercion; and we oppose the use of force," Panetta said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a May 14 speech in Washington that tensions over the South China Sea between China and several other countries highlight the need for an increased U.S. presence in the region. 

Rumors that a new Philippine seaport being built in the Spratly Islands could become the Pentagon's military outpost in the hotly contested waterway has only added fuel to the fire in the territorial dispute. 

The Spratlys, a chain of islands in the South China Sea off the coast of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, have become a repeated flash point between China and other regional powers. 

Both McCain and Panetta argue U.S. ratification of the "Law of the Sea" treaty would ease tensions in the Pacific, particularly those in the South China Sea. 

However, a number of Senate Republicans continue to block the treaty's ratification, claiming the terms of the deal would inhibit U.S. Naval operations in the Pacific. 

While China may dominate this weekend's talks, the resurgence of radical Islamic groups in the region should also generate a great deal of discussion. 

A recent report by the Philippine military claims attacks by al Qaeda's affiliate in the country, Abu Sayyaf, have jumped by 20 percent since 2010. 

Despite the presence of a U.S. special-operations task force that has been stationed in the region since 2001, supporting Filipino forces in their ongoing campaign against the terror group, Abu Sayyaf operatives have become more violent. 

The group launched 74 attacks against civilian and military targets in the past two years, mostly focused on areas in the south where the group is headquartered, according to the report. 

Most recently, a bomb strapped to a parked motorcycle exploded Thursday in Basilan's capital city of Isabela, wounding a motorist, according to local news reports. 

The blast also damaged two passing vehicles, including one carrying the city's vice mayor, who was not hurt.

Abu Sayyaf was considered a key link to al Qaeda's presence in the Pacific. The group coordinated terror attacks with cells in Indonesia and Singapore and was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Al Qaeda's cell in Indonesia claimed responsibility for the bombing of a nightclub in Bali in 2002, which resulted in over 300 people wounded or killed. 

While U.S. counterterrorism efforts have largely driven the terror group's Pacific factions underground, Abu Sayyaf's escalating wave of violence shows that al Qaeda's still has ambitions for the region.