Panetta, in Japan, Says US to Maintain Pacific Presence

Posted October 24th, 2011 at 7:00 am (UTC-5)
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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told American forces in Japan Monday that the United States is determined to maintain and strengthen its military presence in Asia.

Panetta was speaking at an air base west of Tokyo, where he arrived after delivering a similar message to Southeast Asian defense ministers in Indonesia.

During a town hall meeting, Panetta told a Japanese soldier that pending U.S. defense cuts will not mean any reduction in U.S. force projection in the Pacific region.

Panetta also said the United States will maintain a strong presence in the Middle East after it withdraws its forces from Iraq, which is scheduled to occur by the end of December. He warned Iran that the pullout will not create an opening for America's adversaries in the region.

Panetta flew to Japan from the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where he had attended a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers. Before leaving Indonesia, he met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

He told his fellow ministers late Sunday that that coming budget cuts will not lead the United States to reduce its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Panetta also said he appreciated China's restrained reaction to a recent $5.85 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, including an upgrade of its fleet of F-16 jet fighters.

He said China has handled the decision in a “professional and diplomatic way,” possibly because it was given advance notice of the decision. He said he will continue to work for better military-to-military relations with China.

Panetta is making his first visit to Asia since he moved from CIA director to defense secretary in July. Earlier Sunday in Indonesia, he met with senior officials and agreed to help the country upgrade some of its military equipment.

Panetta concludes his trip with stops in Japan and South Korea, where he is expected to discuss diplomatic efforts to achieve a resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. He will also talk to officials about plans to move a controversial air base on Okinawa.