Continued from page 1

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own, setting up conflicts with other nations in the region, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and others that also have territorial claims there.

Mr. Panetta flew to Vietnam from a major defense conference in Singapore, where he met with leaders from allies all across the region. There he issued a strong call for Asian nations to set up a code of conduct, including rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the South China Sea, and then develop a forum where disputes can be settled.

At the same time he detailed plans to boost U.S. military presence in the region, including a modest increase in ships and more troops that mainly would rotate in and out. Defense officials said that by 2020 the U.S. Navy would add about eight ships to the Asia-Pacific region and overall would have about 60 percent of the fleet assigned there.

Tensions between the U.S. and China reverberate across the region and often are focused on America’s support of the island of Taiwan, which China considers its own.

In addition, more recently the U.S. has been vocal in blaming China for cyberattacks that emanate from the country and steal critical data from U.S. government agencies and private American companies.