By Lolita C. Baldor ,AP
ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is traveling through Asia this week, determined to show the U.S. is serious about shifting its focus to the region, amid growing worries about China’s increasingly aggressive posture and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In a series of meetings at a Singapore conference and in a major speech Saturday, Panetta is expected to lay out more details of America’s plans to increase the number of U.S. troops and military equipment in the Asia-Pacific.
He would not describe the U.S. military assets — ships, aircraft, radars or other high-tech systems — the U.S. is willing to devote to the region. But he told reporters traveling with him to Singapore on Thursday that the U.S. can provide weapons, technological assistance, and other aid to the countries based on their individual needs.
The conference, however, may be somewhat diminished by the lack of attendance by key Chinese leaders, particularly following recent regional meetings where they asserted stronger claims to the South China Sea.
Senior U.S. officials routinely insist that the Pentagon’s plans to beef up its presence and activities in the Asia-Pacific are not targeting one specific country. But those claims are belied by America’s unease at China’s growing dominance and its dramatic yet largely unexplained increases in military spending.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have ebbed and flowed. Beijing has cut off communications in the past over U.S. aid to Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own. And there are repeated disagreements over Beijing’s claim to control waters the U.S. considers international.