Expanded force supports US 'pivot' to Asia, says admiral
Increased military presence will have calming effect on tensions in region, commander says
The United States has significantly increased its warship and aircraft deployments in Asia despite Washington's budget woes, adding punch to its "pivot" to the region, a senior naval commander said.
Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, commander of an aircraft carrier strike group based in Yokosuka, Japan, said the expanded military presence would have a calming effect on simmering tensions and territorial disputes in the region.
"The strategic rebalancing has resulted in an extremely higher number of surface combatants, cruisers and destroyers that support the strike group," Montgomery said in an interview aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the South China Sea.
"What we've seen is an increase in surface combatant presence here in the Western Pacific ... so these ships are spread throughout those areas," he said, in the interview at the flag bridge of the nuclear-powered supercarrier as fighter jets took off and landed on the deck as part of drills.
"Having more ships gives us more presence. It allows us to have a greater force."
Montgomery said US defence budget cuts and the recent 16-day partial US government shutdown have not affected his command.
The shutdown forced President Barack Obama to skip two Asian summits, triggering concerns about the extent of US commitment to the region as China becomes more assertive.
"Operations and maintenance decisions have not affected us. The strategic rebalance is continuing in earnest," the admiral said.
"We have sufficient funds for our operations ... there is in fact a strategic rebalancing in place that has resulted in more ships and aircraft being out here."
Last year, then US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said in Singapore that the Pentagon would shift 60 per cent of US naval assets to the Pacific region by 2020 as part of an Asian "pivot" announced by Washington.
Montgomery, a 25-year veteran in the US Navy, said ships and planes from San Diego, California and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii are being deployed to Asia for up to eight months as part of the rebalancing. "That gives me a lot more flexibility, a lot more presence," he said.
Montgomery commands Carrier Strike Group Five from the nuclear-powered George Washington, which was in international waters in the South China Sea on Wednesday when journalists and other visitors were flown in from Singapore.
The George Washington heads the US Navy's largest carrier strike group and the only one with a home port outside the US. It operates in three theatres, including the waters off the Korean Peninsula where tensions between North and South Korea are simmering.
It also operates in the sea off Japan where Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute, and in the South China Sea, where China and four southeast Asian states as well as Taiwan have overlapping claims. China claims almost all of the waters in the South China Sea.
Montgomery's carrier strike group held military exercises with South Korea and Japan off the Korean peninsula this month, sparking a sharp rebuke from Pyongyang which denounced the drills as a "serious military provocation" and an "attack on our efforts for peace".
This week the group was cruising the South China Sea while holding smaller military exercises with the Malaysian navy and air force and later in the month with Singapore.