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No big U.S. naval buildup in Asia, top officer says

By Phil Stewart and Paul Eckert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's decision to reorient the U.S. military's focus to the Asia-Pacific region will not lead to a major naval buildup there, the top U.S. Navy officer said on Tuesday, adding that the United States already has a robust presence in the area.

Obama last week unveiled a new military strategy shifting attention to Asia over the next decade while downsizing the overall force, moves that will accommodate significant cuts in projected U.S. defense spending.

But the Pentagon has not yet revealed what that plan will mean concretely for the deployment of U.S. military forces and equipment to different regions of the world. More details are due in the coming weeks during the rollout of the annual U.S. federal budget proposal.

China's military did not wait for details before issuing statements accusing the United States of trying to contain China.

Addressing a forum in Washington, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, put forward a chart showing that the U.S. Navy has about 50 ships and submarines deployed today in the western Pacific, compared with about 30 in the Middle East.

Greenert said the Navy would review Obama's strategy and "adjust accordingly."

"But my first assessment is that we're in good shape in the Navy where we stand in the western Pacific," he told a forum hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.

Asked about a possible buildup in naval forces and equipment in Asia, Greenert appeared to play down speculation about a major change in the deployment of forces there and in the Middle East.

"My point is, it's not a big naval buildup in the Far East. We're there, we have been there, we will continue to be there," he said.

"And that I see the same proportion in the (Middle East), I don't see a naval movement" from there, he said.

Greenert spoke at a panel launching a report by the Center for a New American Security on dealing with potential conflict in the South China Sea, where maritime territorial disputes pit China against Vietnam and others.

'A DECLINING POWER'?

The report urges the United States to build a worldwide naval force of up to 346 ships - far more than the fleet of 250 vessels envisioned after budget cuts and the retirement of older ships.

The center's Patrick Cronin said that if the United States did not use this decade to expand its fleet, "whatever we say, we're going to be seen as a declining power" in Asia.

"What I'm worried about is the idea that we may be shrinking rather than growing our Navy," said Cronin.

The shift in focus to Asia comes amid increasing concern at the Pentagon over China's strategic goals as it begins to field a new generation of weapons that U.S. officials fear are designed to try to prevent U.S. naval and air forces from projecting power into the region.

The People's Liberation Army's newspaper said on Tuesday the United States was "laying out forces across the Asia-Pacific region in advance to contain the rise of China."

Part of the U.S. strategy includes shoring up U.S. alliances across the region, and Greenert acknowledged deepening ties with countries including longtime allies such as Japan and Australia and emerging relationships with others, like Vietnam.

He also stressed the need to deepen dialogue with the People's Liberation Army Navy.

China's Ministry of Defense on Monday warned the United States to be "careful in its words and actions" after announcing the new strategy.

Asked about the comments, Greenert responded: "I appreciate the advice."

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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