Panetta and Liang
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at left and Chinese Minister of National Defense, General Liang Guanglie at right, speaking to the press at the Pentagon Reuters

Can you really protect your allies while still cutting the military? That's the conundrum the U.S. is now facing, even as it talks about pivoting back to Asia and returning in force to the Western Pacific.

It's also likely to be on the minds of U.S. allies and regional governments during Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to the Asia-Pacific over the next nine days. Panetta will be stopping in Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and India during the trip, after first stopping by U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu on Wednesday.

Panetta will have the challenging task of convincing the region's governments that the U.S. has a resolute commitment to its allies, although financial and physical resources available to the Defense Department are diminishing.

Concrete numbers in March from the U.S. Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan showed further reductions for the future, putting the fleet's average yearly number of ships below the 300 mark that was once seen as a critical threshold for maritime supremacy. In fiscal year 2014 and 2015 that number will dip below 280 ships. America's projection of power into Asia has always been borne on the decks of warships, which carried U.S. interests across the vast Pacific Ocean and the wide maritime expanses of Asia.

Without a doubt, U.S. ships are still larger, more heavily armed, and more technologically advanced than those of possible opponents, and they outweigh the next dozen navies in the world combined, in terms of gross tonnage. But they can't be everywhere at once. China, meanwhile, has been busy launching new naval vessels of all shapes and sizes. Just this past week, online military watchers posted pictures of a completely new class of corvette, launched in Shanghai.

But in addition to planned fleet reductions in the U.S., automatic defense cuts next January may soon skim another $50 billion per year over the next decade from the Defense Department budget. Unless Congress finds some new way to generate funding, those reductions will add onto the already existing $487 billion decade-long savings decided last year.

The U.S. may still spend more than $550 billion in 2013 on defense, not even including supplemental spending. That's more than five times China's official military figures, but the Pentagon says that Beijing massively understates its military budget, by as much as around half its actual size. The 2013 U.S. defense spending request is nearly $32 billion lower than it was for 2012, while China's double-digit percentage increases seem unaffected by the global economic slowdown.

The current Panetta tour is expected to deliver concrete details and explanations of future U.S. defense plans to regional partners, as a follow-up to a major Pentagon strategy review released in January. The previous report, which described a return to the Asia-Pacific as the core of the future U.S. military strategy, nevertheless remained vague as to how the pivot, as it is called by analysts, would be practically carried out.

A Pentagon official at a Wednesday news conference told reporters that the trip is meant to give a comprehensive account to partners and everyone in the region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific will mean in practice.

Panetta will attend the 2012 Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1-3, which brings defense ministers from around the Asia Pacific to Singapore. This year's meetings will highlight South China Sea disputes, growth in regional militaries, and U.S. rebalancing in Asia as major points of discussion.

In the past, Chinese scholars have criticized regional forums as a veiled venue for others to gang up on China. During the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. had a national interest in keeping open the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, over which China has the most extensive sovereignty claims. At the time, the comment was seen in Beijing as an indication that the U.S. was offering vocal support to countries like Vietnam in their disputes with China.

In June 2011 at the Shangri-La Dialogue, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates answered criticism of U.S. dedication to the region by saying that American commitment had an enduring and consistent nature... even in times of transition and change.

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie replied to anxiety about China's defense growth at the same session, saying that the essence of China's path of peaceful development is a desired peaceful international environment, in which China could develop itself and reciprocally help maintain and promote world peace.

It remains to be seen whether Secretary Panetta will make time during this visit to speak with the Chinese side exclusively. He will in any case make a trip to China during the latter half of this year, after hosting Liang in the U.S. in early May.

But the most important part of Panetta's trip may come after he leaves Singapore. Panetta will then arrive in Vietnam and India, not official U.S. allies, but two nations that are quickly warming to new military-to-military relations with the U.S. Both straddle important geographic regions and are seen by defense analysts as ways to balance a rise in Chinese military power.

For now it is unlikely that U.S. defense relations with the two will improve dramatically, though China hawks in Washington are quick to identify them as potential full-fledged allies. Although established U.S. allies like Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines and new partners India and Vietnam are concerned with -- and in some cases infuriated by -- increasing maritime disputes with China, their overall relationships with Beijing are more complex.

Indeed, unimpeded economic relations with Beijing are keeping those countries, and thus a large portion of the Asia Pacific, in a period of growth, even as the West suffers from continued economic stagnation.

Panetta's descriptions of a new American military strategy will still be scrutinized across the region, and balanced against the possibility of souring relations with Beijing. After all, money speaks louder than words.