The USS Independence, a Littoral Combat Ship, transits the Narragansett Bay, off Rhode Island. (U.S. Navy)

The United States and Singapore are in the final negotiating stages of an agreement to base some of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships at the Changi Naval Base. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced in June that a deal was near to deploy the ships to Singapore, and a Pentagon spokesman said this week that officials “remain excited about this opportunity.”

The initial announcement barely caused a ripple compared with the stir caused by President Obama’s declaration Wednesday that he would permanently station a small number of Marines in Australia.

The former involves 250 to 2,500 Marines deployed roughly 2,500 miles from China. The latter is significantly closer — and is sure to be viewed as more threatening by Beijing.

Littoral Combat Ships are among the most modern in the Navy’s fleet and can be outfitted for a variety of missions, from anti-piracy to submarine tracking and special operations. They’re designed to operate in shallow coastal waters and travel at a top speed of more than 40 knots.

Singapore is a city-state that carries outsized influence because of its strategic location along the Straits of Malacca, the main thoroughfare between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and home to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is also on the southern edge of the South China Sea, the subject of increasingly nasty territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.

On Friday, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Chinese President Hu Jintao fired the latest in a series of warning shots over attempts to mediate the disputes.

“External forces should not use any excuse to interfere,” he said, adding that it “should be resolved by the relevant sovereign states.”

Those states, in the Chinese view, do not include the U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton angered the Chinese last year when she said that the United States had a strategic interest in the South China Sea and that Washington favored a regional solution to the territorial disputes.

Permanently basing some Navy warships in Singapore would signal that the United States isn’t backing away.

U.S. officials said they are leaning toward basing two Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore but it’s still unclear whether the crews and their families will be home-ported there, similar to U.S. basing arrangements in Japan, or if the crews will rotate from somewhere else.

The U.S. Navy is already very familiar with Singapore. About 150 U.S. warships visited the port last year while passing through.