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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

An American aircraft carrier and its escort ships have been sent on a cruise through the South China Sea.

GREENE: News of that cruise off China's coast comes as China confronts some of its neighbors over islands in the region. The Chinese have argued with the Philippines and Japan, both of them U.S. allies. It's a reminder that the world's most important trade relationship is also a sometimes strained relationship.

INSKEEP: That relationship is one of several subjects that may come up in tonight's presidential debate on foreign policy, and which we are discussing on today's program. America's friends in East Asia welcome more U.S. involvement there.

But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports after a recent trip to Singapore, they wonder about America's staying power.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: On a visit to Singapore this summer, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said America's military was shifting its focus to the center of global economic growth: Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Make no mistake. In a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and is bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region.

LANGFITT: Statements like this go down badly in Beijing. Here's one of the more measured responses from a Chinese government spokesman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) We hope that the American side respects the interests and concerns of the Chinese side and various parties in the Asia Pacific.

LANGFITT: Panetta's pledge also raises a big question for American allies here: Can the U.S. actually follow through? Huang Jing teaches political science at the National University of Singapore.

HUANG JING: Are Americans ready to increase investment in this area, or can America really afford that? Because, whatever strategy, you have to translate it into concrete policies. But so far, they haven't seen much of that.

LANGFITT: For instance, the U.S. plans to deploy four coastal combat ships to Singapore. But analysts say they're too small to affect the balance of power. Tim Huxley runs the Asia office for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading think tank.

TIM HUXLEY: I think there are many in the region who see a long-term pattern of American decline, who worry about the United States economy and what that will mean for its defense spending and ability to deploy forces in the long-term.

LANGFITT: The U.S. Navy has ensured security in the Asia Pacific for decades. That peace allowed countries like Singapore and later China to build thriving economies. But America's financial problems and China's growing power are changing the equation.

Again, Tim Huxley.

HUXLEY: I think what has changed in the last few years is that there is a battle for influence between the two major powers, and it's much more obviously going on, to the extent that some people would even talk in terms of this being a sort of low-key, new Cold War.

LANGFITT: Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore says countries are trying to strike a delicate balance. Some are building up their own navies, strengthening military ties with the U.S. and economic ones with China.

JING: Everyone's hedging, because America is still dominant in security arrangements. So no one wants to go away from United States. They want to stay with the United States for security reasons. However, the entire economic dynamic is centered on China.

LANGFITT: Many Chinese politicians think the U.S. is headed permanently downhill. But some Asian leaders caution China against overconfidence. Last month, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered this blunt message at the Central Party School in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LEE HSIEN LOONG: (Through translator) The U.S. will remain the dominant superpower for the foreseeable future. It's currently facing some very difficult problems, but it's not a nation in decline.

LANGFITT: Zheng Yongnian, who directs the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, says the prime minister was warning China not to underestimate the U.S.

ZHENG YONGNIAN: In international affairs, miscalculation or misperception sometimes leads to disaster, right? Wrong decisions - not only Singapore. Other powers also will remind China to be realistic.

LANGFITT: And whoever wins the presidency next month will have to manage the issue with care and make sure the U.S. has the resources to remain engaged in a region that's vital to the American and global economies.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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