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Panetta seeks to reassure China

From this island nation in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sent a message Saturday that America's new military focus on the Asia-Pacific region is not intended to raise tensions or threaten Beijing.

The Pentagon chief appeared to offer an olive branch to the communist power and said often feuding rivals must learn to work together for the benefit of the entire region.

Delivering his most extensive thoughts to date on the fragile state of U.S.-China relations, Panetta said neither side is naive about their disagreements.

"We both understand the differences we have, we both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military) relationship," he said at a security conference.

At the same time, he said Asian nations must find a way to resolve their own conflicts because the U.S. cannot always come charging in to help.

Panetta's speech was designed to give a more detailed explanation about the new U.S. defense strategy, which includes plans to increase the number of U.S. military personnel, warships and other assets in the region over the next several years.

He said that by 2020, about 60 percent of the fleet will be assigned there. Currently, the Navy has about 285 ships, with half assigned to the Pacific.

While noting it may take years to complete the transition, Panetta said that U.S. budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the U.S. Defense Department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.

Tensions between the U.S. and China are often focused on America's support of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province, threatening to use force to block any Taiwanese bid for independence.

Another area of dispute is the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely as its own. But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims.

More recently the U.S. has blamed China for cyberattacks that steal critical data from U.S. government agencies and private American companies.

On that front, Panetta said U.S. and Chinese leaders have talked about developing teams that can work together on difficult issues. That could involve how to exchange information on computer-based threats and whether they can agree on standards for the use of cybercapabilities.

Some questioned whether adding more U.S. military to the region might embolden some smaller nations, triggering more conflicts. They also wondered aloud whether China's leaders boycotted the conference in protest over America's new strategy for the region.

"I don't think we should take the attitude that just because we improve their capabilities that we're asking for more trouble," Panetta said.