By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is shifting more military muscle, including another aircraft carrier, to the Pacific to protect the status quo in a region facing China's growing clout, the Pentagon's second-ranking official said on Thursday.
In coming years, 60 percent of U.S. Navy ships will be in the Pacific, up from 52 percent now, including a net increase of one carrier to six, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told an industry conference hosted by Credit Suisse and McAleese and Associates, a consultancy.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are also working on stepped-up rotations, "so they'll be seeing more of the U.S. Army in the Asia Pacific region not less," Carter said.
Elaborating on military priorities that President Barack Obama announced in January, Carter said U.S. forces had played a crucial role in preventing conflict in the Pacific region for roughly the last 60 years.
"We don't want that to change. We want to continue to have that role and that's really what our investments are aimed at," Carter said when asked whether the goal was to pre-empt, deter or hedge against China.
Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus, speaking to the conference after Carter, said the Navy planned to achieve the buildup using new ships as they roll out of shipyards.
Beijing in recent years has asserted territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea more aggressively.
In response, the United States is laying the groundwork for a more widely distributed footprint in Asia through strengthened alliances and partnerships, including with Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Carter cited a range of upgrades and new programs that he said were directed to the region, including radar sets, antisubmarine warfare improvements and development of a new long-range, nuclear-capable bomber. The programs were largely outlined in a five-year spending request that Obama sent to Congress last month.
The United States also is moving to protect fixed bases in the region, he said. Such installations are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon.
(Reporting By Jim Wolf; Editing by Vicki Allen)