by Staff Writers
Yokota Air Base, Japan (AFP) Oct 24, 2011
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Japan on Monday hoping to persuade Tokyo to relocate a military base which Washington says is vital to its role as a Pacific power.
In his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, Panetta is seeking to reassure allies that the US remains engaged in the region as a counterweight to the growing might of China.
Part of that engagement, he will tell Japanese officials, means moving ahead with the planned relocation of a marine airbase on an island chain in the south that is home to around half of the nearly 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan.
Panetta's Asian tour has already taken him to Indonesia where he told regional figures that budget cuts at home would not stymie Washington's engagement in the Pacific, even as he offered rare praise for China.
In a meeting with defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), some of whose members have been locked in disputes with Beijing over the resource-rich South China Sea, Panetta said Washington's commitment to the region would not wane.
On arriving in Tokyo he told US and Japanese military families at Yokota Air Base the US was in the region for the long haul.
"I want to make clear to everyone in this region... that the Pacific remains a priority for the United States of America," he said.
"We will continue to have force projection in that area, we will continue, not only maintain but strengthen our presence in this part of the world. We are a Pacific nation, we'll have a Pacific presence in this area.
"The US is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time. That means, we're not anticipating any cutbacks in this region."
In the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Panetta had earlier praised Beijing for what he said was a restrained response to a recent $5.85 billion US arms package for Taiwan.
"I guess I would commend them for the way that they've handled the news of that sale to Taiwan," Panetta said.
China has condemned the US deal to upgrade Taiwan's fleet of F-16 fighter jets. But unlike over previous US sales to Taiwan, it has not so far cut off military contacts with Washington.
In Tokyo, where he will meet Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Tuesday, Panetta will seek to kick-start a stalled plan to move the Futenma air base from an overcrowded urban part of Okinawa to a rural coast.
Local objections to the move, which would also see 8,000 troops redeployed outside Japan, have seen the plan put on ice, sparking frustration in Washington and chilling relations with Tokyo.
"I will make clear to them that we continue to support our commitment with Japan with regards to Futenma... and my goal will be to ensure that steps are being taken to fulfil that commitment," he told journalists on Sunday.
"One of the important things I hope to discuss with the Japanese is what progress do they believe they can achieve by the end of the year."
Earlier on Monday Panetta promised to help upgrade Jakarta's ageing military hardware and upgrade a radar system to monitor the Malacca Strait, which connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and has been plagued with piracy.
Sensitive direct talks between the United States and North Korea are set to take place later Monday in Geneva to try to lay the ground for reviving long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Before any broader discussions, the United States, South Korea and Japan are insisting the North take concrete steps to demonstrate it is sincere about resuming full six-party nuclear talks which also include Russia and China.
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Panetta backs developing military ties with Indonesia
Nusa Dua, Indonesia (AFP) Oct 23, 2011
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that Washington will continue to develop military ties with Indonesia but keep a watchful eye on rights abuses, after over a decade of suspended cooperation. He said closed-door talks with his Indonesia counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro focused on "Indonesia's growing importance as a global leader and the long-term commitment of the US to the secur ... read more
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