The United States is committed to safeguarding security in Asia, and will respond to developments in the region while ensuring its defence forces are "fully resourced" to keep the peace, said Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter.
He made plain that this US stand was a long-standing one, and its strong presence in Asia over the past seven decades had not impeded the rise of Japan, or the rapid development of South Korea and South-east Asia.
Similarly, the US was not out to block China's progress, he said. Nor did the US wish to force its partners in the region to pick sides. Besides, apart from China, India is also rising, and so too is a resurgent Japan, Mr Carter noted.
Stressing that he did not think a conflict with China was inevitable, he said: "We are not fatalistic... but we will have to work to get good outcomes. And we will work with everybody to get an outcome that is win-win-win-win, for everyone."
Mr Carter was speaking on Friday evening at a discussion on the Global Security Outlook at the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.
He called on all parties in the region to stop actions which militarised the situation in the disputed South China Sea and pointed out that China's recent moves, such as reclamation works on disputed islands, had pushed countries towards the US. These moves were "self-alienating" for China, he said, pledging that the US would respond to such developments in the region.
Asean, noted Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had a role to play. It could not simply be neutral or passive, but had to be "actively neutral". Whenever there were unilateral assertions of power, "we have to shine a light on it and insist on these matters being taken to international courts", he added.
He disclosed that the forthcoming military budget he was preparing would put into practice US plans to rebalance its forces to Asia.
Joining in the debate, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted that a military conflict between the US and China had a lower probability of happening than a terrorist attack in the region, but any Sino-US clash would have major consequences.
The US and China were going through a period of "peaceful rebalancing", he noted, and it would take time for the two countries to build up trust.
Trust, he said, would be established not by countries signing agreements, but by how they responded to each other's actions.
Asean, he noted, had a role to play. It could not simply be neutral or passive, but had to be "actively neutral". Whenever there were unilateral assertions of power, "we have to shine a light on it and insist on these matters being taken to international courts", he added.
Mr Carter, noting Singapore's stand on the issue, pointed to how the country, though small, has consistently "punched above its weight" internationally.
Earlier, he had also told his audience of top business and political leaders that the US would be investing more resources for the defence of Europe, in response to Russia's "aggressive behaviour" in the Ukraine.
Asked by WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab what kept him awake at night, Mr Carter cited the looming Islamist threat, as well as North Korea.
While tension in the Korean peninsula was long-standing, US forces stationed there had to always be ready to "fight tonight" should hostilities break out.
Turning to terrorism, he said it was imperative that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group be defeated, insisting that this "needs to occur, it will occur… first and foremost in Syria and Iraq". The US would work with local forces in those countries to get the job done, he said, but warned that even when that happened, there would still be much work to rebuild communities there.
Taking up this point, another panel member, Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, declared that his country would be the "burial ground of Daesh", another name for ISIS. But stability could only be achieved by focusing on the needs of its citizens. Governments would have to deliver jobs, education, housing and other services efficiently, just as Singapore had done, he said.
DPM Tharman, pointing out that Singapore was the most religiously diverse nation in the world, with every major religion - and its conflicts - represented in its society, said the country had had to make religious harmony work right from the outset, or it would not have survived. It now had to redouble its efforts on this front, as the terrorist threat was likely to remain a concern for some time.
While the vast majority of Muslims in the region rejected extremism, all it took was for a tiny minority to become radicalised and carry out an attack, which could destroy the cohesion built up over the years, he said.
Read more stories on the summit online at http://str.sg/ZVgM