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US warship in Singapore gives punch to US Asian 'pivot'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A US warship designed to fight in coastal areas arrived Thursday in Singapore for its Southeast Asian deployment, underlining President Barack Obama's new strategic focus on Asia.

The deployment of the USS Freedom comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and as China publicly flexes its naval muscle in the South China Sea, where it has competing territorial claims with some Southeast Asian states.

US Navy officials said the Freedom, a littoral combat ship, sailed into Changi Naval Base at around 11:00 am (0300 GMT) in Singapore, a long-standing US ally that assists in logistics and exercises for forces in Southeast Asia.

The ship, the US Navy's first littoral combat ship designed to fight close to the shore, will be deployed for the next eight months in the region, where it will participate in naval exercises and visit other ports.

Regional security expert Ian Storey said the Freedom's deployment signals Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in the region, which hosts some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

"The forward deployment of these ships is part the US pivot, rebalancing away from Iraq and Afghanistan and towards Asia," said Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"It demonstrates to US allies and friends that it is committed to maintaining a strong presence in the region to ensure stability. In naval terms, it also underpins the US' commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation," he told AFP.

Then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last year that Washington will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia, where China is an emerging power.

China is embroiled in a maritime dispute with four Southeast Asian countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims nearly the entire sea, including areas much nearer to the other claimants. Manila and Hanoi have been the most vocal in criticising China over alleged heavy-handedness in enforcing its claims.

While not a claimant, Washington has said it has an interest in the area to ensure freedom of navigation.

"We plan on spending most of our time here in Southeast Asia. This will be Freedom's neighbourhood for the next eight months," said US Navy Commander Timothy Wilke, the ship's commanding officer.

"We are eager to get out and about, work with other regional navies and share best practices during exercises, port visits and maritime security operations."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130418/us-warship-singapore-gives-punch-us-asian-pivot