January 10, 2012

US Navy Won’t take its Eye off the Ball in Mideast as it Boosts Presence in Asia

WASHINGTON — The United States will not be “taking its eye off the ball” in the Middle East as it looks to strengthen its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, the head of the Navy said Tuesday.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that he does not forsee a shift in naval forces from the Middle East. He said the vast majority of the United States’ 100 deployed ships currently operate in the West Pacific and the Persian Gulf.

“If you ask me what keeps me awake at night, it’s the Strait of Hormuz and business going on in the Arabian Gulf,” Greenert told a seminar organized by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

He added: “The Navy won’t be taking their eye off the ball.”

Iran last week warned American vessels against entering the strait after the U.S. tightened sanctions over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. The strait carries to market much of the oil pumped in the Middle East.

The Obama administration last week unveiled a strategic defense review that seeks to enhance the U.S. presence in Asia because of the region’s economic importance and China’s rise as a military power. It aims to retain American military pre-eminence worldwide despite stiff budget cuts to reduce the nation’s deficit.

A new report by the center contends that the cuts could leave the U.S. Navy weakened when it needs to build a stronger fleet to preserve American interests, particularly in the South China Sea, a potential regional flashpoint.

“The South China Sea is quite simply the throat of international commerce,” said author Robert Kaplan, who contributed to the report. He said about half of the tonnage of international trade passes through these resource-rich waters.

China claims the sea almost entirely as its own, but Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims there.

The Navy currently has 285 ships worldwide, compared with almost 600 during the Cold War presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. However, it remains a far stronger force than China’s, which is rapidly growing but has only recently launched its first aircraft carrier. The U.S. has five aircraft carrier strike groups based in the Asia-Pacific alone.