Singapore would consider doubling the number of U.S. Navy shallow-water ships Washington plans to permanently base there, a move that would rile Asian giant China, a senior Singaporean official said.
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The Navy last year announced plans to base two littoral combat ships in the tiny south Asian nation. But Singaporean leaders have told the Pentagon they would consider hosting as many as four of the ships—which are small enough to fight in shallow waters near a coastline—a senior official said.
The Singaporean official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The decision to base the littoral ships in Singapore is part of the Obama administration's shift of U.S. foreign and security policy from the Middle East to Asia after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The basing decision was a big win for Singapore, which will benefit economically, and a sign of its ever-closer ties to Washington.
The littoral combat ships are smaller and lighter than large vessels like aircraft carriers and destroyers and are designed primarily to do a single type of mission at a time, like locate mines or track pirates near shore.
The littoral ships have a crew of around 45 sailors; an aircraft carrier can have a crew as large as 4,600 sailors.
Washington's allies in the region welcome an enhanced U.S. naval and military footprint as a hedge against a rising China. But they also are increasingly concerned about a U.S.-Chinese conflict.
Enhancing that presence, however, "must be done in a way that minimizes frictions that would make U.S. partners more susceptible to Chinese coercion. The decision the summer of 2011 to locate two littoral combat ships in Singapore is a leading example," Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security wrote in a recent report. "Whether those two ships and crews are based in Singapore or just frequently stationed there, this model of flexible presence could be pursued with other [regional] countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam."
Other naval analyst predict the American littoral combat ships will nevertheless be a target of fiery rhetoric from Beijing. But, analysts say, the much smaller footprint these vessels would bring compared to larger ships will make it hard for Beijing to accuse Washington of building a war fleet in China's backyard.