A US warship designed to fight in coastal areas arrived on Thursday in Singapore for its Southeast Asian deployment, underlining President Barack Obama’s new strategic focus on Asia.
The deployment of the USS Freedom comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and as China publicly flexes its naval muscle in the South China Sea, where it has competing territorial claims with some Southeast Asian states.
US Navy officials said the Freedom, a new class of vessel called the littoral combat ship (LCS), sailed into Changi Naval Base at around 11.00am in Singapore, a long-standing US ally that assists in logistics and exercises for forces in Southeast Asia.
The ship, the US Navy’s first LCS, which is designed to fight close to the shore, will be deployed for the next eight months in the region, where it will participate in naval exercises and visit other ports.
Regional security expert Ian Storey said the Freedom’s deployment signals Washington’s commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in the region, which hosts some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“The forward deployment of these ships is part the US pivot, rebalancing away from Iraq and Afghanistan and towards Asia,” said Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“It demonstrates to US allies and friends that it is committed to maintaining a strong presence in the region to ensure stability. In naval terms, it also underpins the US’ commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation,” he said.
Then US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced last year that Washington will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia, where China is an emerging power.
China is embroiled in a maritime dispute with four Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims nearly the entire sea, including areas much nearer to the other claimants. Manila and Hanoi have been the most vocal in criticising China over alleged heavy-handedness in enforcing its claims.
While not a claimant, Washington has said it has an interest in the area to ensure freedom of navigation.
“We plan on spending most of our time here in Southeast Asia. This will be Freedom’s neighbourhood for the next eight months,” said US Navy Commander Timothy Wilke, the ship’s commanding officer.
“We are eager to get out and about, work with other regional navies and share best practices during exercises, port visits and maritime security operations.”
Singapore has agreed to the rotational deployment of up to four LCS. This means the vessels will not be permanently based in the country and crews will live aboard during ship visits.
Euan Graham, a maritime security expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Beijing “is obviously cautious about any enhancement of the US military presence around the South China Sea”.
But he added that China also understands that Freedom’s presence is “not a major step-change in the naval balance in the region”.
China, however, would be keen to learn about the performance of the ship, a versatile vessel that can be used for surface warfare as well as to hunt for mines and submarines and is suitable to maritime regions like Southeast Asia, Graham said.
He said the timing of Freedom’s deployment also counters perceptions that US budget cuts would “undermine the sustainability of the US forward presence” in Asia.