06/01/2012 03:15 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada seeks Singapore hub to support U.S. military Asia 'pivot' toward China

OTTAWA - Canada is seeking a deal with Singapore to establish a military staging post there as part of its effort to support the United States' "pivot" toward Asia to counter a rising China.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay revealed the plan in an exclusive interview Friday with The Canadian Press from Singapore, where he was attending a major security conference.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to give more details of the Pentagon's renewed military focus on Asia during a major speech in Singapore on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue. The Pentagon's Asia tilt comes in response to China's rising military spending.

"This entire concept — the buzzword is the pivot to the Pacific — it's a recognition of the regional power dynamics here that do affect us with China expanding and modernizing their military capabilities," said MacKay.

To that end, MacKay said Canada is looking at a cost-effective way of increasing its military footprint in the region. MacKay said a military hub in Singapore would be similar to the arrangements it has reached with Kuwait and Jamaica, to give it military footholds in the Middle East and the Caribbean.

"Everything that the United States does is off the charts in terms of their scale compared to everyone else. But other countries, including us, are looking at having a greater presence and ability to mobilize here in this region. That includes things like humanitarian relief."

MacKay treaded carefully when discussing China's military buildup because the Harper government is courting Beijing to boost two-way trade and Canadian energy exports from Alberta's oilsands.

He noted a delicate balance must be maintained between Canada's new Asia-focused economic priorities and its security interests in the region, especially in light of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's second trip to China earlier this year and numerous ones by cabinet ministers.

"As that old joke goes about the 500-pound gorilla, you do it very carefully. China has a lot of heft. It's a very fine line to walk. So we're very cautious and judicious in how we deal with China," MacKay explained.

"Having said that, we continue to speak to them in a very honest way, including raising issues of human rights when we feel it's appropriate."

Since arriving in Singapore, MacKay said he's detected significant concern over China's robust military muscle flexing, including its growing sovereignty claims in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.

"In the hallways here what I'm hearing is there's a lot of tension, it's seen as provocative by countries here," said MacKay.

"Whenever there are resource implications, clearly that raises the stakes. There's a need for rule of law."

MacKay said he planned to expand on that theme during his own remarks to the gathering on Sunday.

China won't be around to hear directly from Panetta, MacKay or anyone else because it isn't sending anyone to the Singapore conference.

But other Asian participants are eager to hear concrete indications from Panetta about the number of troops and equipment the U.S. is willing commit to the Asia-Pacific theatre.

MacKay spoke with Panetta on Friday but got few specifics about what he plans to say in his speech on Saturday.