USS Freedom arrives in Singapore as part of US 'pivot'

USS Freedom's arrival in Singapore coincides with escalating tensions in the region

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A US Navy ship has arrived in Singapore as part of US plans to increase its military presence in the region.

The USS Freedom will be stationed in South East Asia for 10 months.

It joins the US 7th Fleet, which is responsible for more than 48 million sq miles (124 million sq km) in the Pacific.

By 2020, 60% of the US Navy's assets will be deployed to the Asia-Pacific as its forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan. China views the move with concern.

"It is the much talked about 'pivot' or rebalancing of the US policy towards Asia," said Nicholas Fang, executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

"The US wants to maintain a stable open sea trade lane which is important for global trade and the US economy but it also shows that it is committed to the stability of the region."

'Existing relationship'

According to the US Navy, the US 7th Fleet's area of responsibility covers 35 maritime countries including those involved in the current crisis on the Korean peninsula such as China, and North and South Korea. The fleet's home port is in Yokosuka, Japan.

Sitting at the Changi naval base in the east of Singapore, the USS Freedom looks enormous but it is in fact one of the smallest combat ships the US has.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong 2 April 2013 Singapore and the US enjoy a close relationship

"It is the first ship of its kind," said Rear Adm Thomas Carney, commander of the US Navy's Logistics Group Western Pacific.

The USS Freedom is known as a littoral combat ship, designed to operate in shallow water close to shore. It also requires a much smaller crew of fewer than 100 which allows the Navy to cut costs.

"Its capabilities are very closely matched to many of the other navies in the region, and deploying it out here to South East Asia gives us the opportunity to test what it can and cannot do," Rear Adm Carney said.

During its deployment, it will participate in joint military exercises with most South East Asian nations, which tend to operate on a much smaller scale.

Start Quote

Having the US military presence in the region is very reassuring to many countries”

End Quote Nicholas Fang Singapore Institute of International Affairs

The USS Freedom is one of four littoral combat ships which Singapore has agreed to host on a rotational basis.

'Pockets of unrest'

Its arrival in Singapore coincides with escalating tensions in the region and continuing threats from North Korea, although it is unlikely the vessel will be deployed to the Korean Peninsula in the near future.

According to Mr Fang, many countries in the region will find the US military presence reassuring.

"Threats from North Korea are not new but we have seen other little pockets of unrest such as the situation in Sabah, Malaysia, which had cross-border tensions with the Philippines," he notes.

But one country which has repeatedly expressed its objections over America's military "pivot" to Asia is China.

In its defence white paper released on Tuesday, China accused the US of destabilising the region by strengthening its military alliances.

"There are some countries which are strengthening their Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanding their military presence in the region and frequently making the situation there more tense," the report said, referring to the US.

Military spokesman Yang Yujun told reporters that such moves "do not accord with the developments of the times and are not conducive towards maintaining regional peace and stability".

South Korean soldiers ride a military truck on a road in the border city of Paju on 17 April 2013 Regional tensions mean many countries welcome the increased US presence

During Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Russia, China also agreed to buy 24 fighter jets and four submarines in what was reportedly its first large-scale military purchase from Russia in a decade.

The state-run China Daily described the visit as China's own "pivot" to Moscow.

"China's views are very clear and they see the US involvement in the region as not in their interest," says Mr Fang.

"But what the USS Freedom is suited for - closer operations with smaller navies in the region - signals that it is not necessarily a force for offensive action or intimidation but it is a force for collaboration and co-operation."

"It can also be interpreted as a way to co-operate more with its allies and build a more balancing effect vis-a-vis China," he added.

While the US cuts military spending, China has become the world's second largest spender. Its defence budget has increased 175% since 2003 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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