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In the early years of China's rise to economic and military prowess, the guiding principle for its government was Deng Xiaoping's maxim: "Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time."
Now, more than three decades after paramount leader Deng launched his reforms, that policy has seemingly lapsed or simply become unworkable as China's military muscle becomes too expansive to conceal and its ambitions too pressing to postpone.
The current row with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea is a prime manifestation of this change, especially the standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.
In what is widely interpreted as a counter to China's growing influence, the United States is pushing ahead with a muscular realignment of its forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, despite Washington's fatigue with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon's steep budget cuts.
And regional nations, including those with a history of adversarial or distant relations with the United States, are embracing Washington's so-called strategic pivot to Asia.
As part of the strategic pivot unveiled in January, the United States will deploy 60 per cent of its warships in the Asia-Pacific, up from 50 per cent now. They will include six aircraft carriers and a majority of the U.S. navy's cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.
"Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region," Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference in Singapore attended by civilian and military leaders from Asia-Pacific and Western nations.
reports last week in China's state-controlled media and online military websites suggested that the first of a new class of a stealthy littoral combat frigate, the type 056, had been launched at Shanghai's Hudong shipyard with three others under construction.
Naval analysts said the new 1,700-tonne ship, armed with a 76mm main gun, missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, would be ideal for patrolling the South China Sea.
These new warships would easily outgun the warships of rival claimants, they said.
As part of his swing through Asia last week, Panetta also visited India and Vietnam in a bid to enhance security ties with two key regional powers that have not been traditional U.S. allies but are increasingly apprehensive about China's rise.
At Vietnam's deep water port of Cam Ranh Bay, a key U.S. base during the Vietnam War, Panetta said the use of this harbour would be important to the Pentagon as it moved more ships to Asia.