BALI, INDONESIA – Identifying himself as a son of the U.S. Pacific coast, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised there would be a stronger American military presence in the Pacific, and in Southeast Asia in particular, in the years to come.
Panetta, on his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region since taking office, met Sunday with Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro to discuss growing bilateral military relations and broader issues facing Southeast Asia. Chief among those issues: China’s growing assertiveness in an area it considers its own backyard.
“I’ve made it very clear… that the United States remains a Pacific power, that we will continue to strengthen our presence in this part of the world and that we will remain a force for peace and prosperity in this region,” Panetta said.
Panetta said the United States would push for free commerce and open access in the sea and in the air. The comments were seemingly aimed at China’s recent territorial claims – disputed by various Southeast Asian countries – to the South China Sea.
The U.S. supports the ongoing development of a maritime code of conduct for the South China Sea being drawn up by Southeast Asian nations and China, Panetta said, as a tool for avoiding conflict there.
Despite some pugnacious initial talk, he said, China’s reaction to recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan has been commendably measured – something that augers well for improved U.S.-China relations.
Asian allies have expressed concerns that looming Pentagon budget cuts would result in force reductions and a decreased scope of American power in Asia, Panetta said. But the region is too important to U.S. security to downgrade, he said.
Panetta met late Sunday with defense ministers from 10 nations at a meeting of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to discuss regional issues including disaster relief, nuclear nonproliferation and freedom of navigation on the seas.
“I’ve made clear that even with the budget constraints that we are facing in the United States… that there is no question in discussions within the Pentagon and discussions with the White House that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America,” he said.
Panetta was scheduled to meet early Monday with Indonesian President Susilo Bambeng Yudhoyono before flying to Japan. There, meetings with defense officials are expected to be dominated by the realignment of American military bases on Okinawa.
One key, Panetta said, is for the Japanese government to show that progress is being made on an environmental assessment of a controversial plan to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a nearby location built on landfill in the ocean. Locals have vigorously opposed the plan, part of a larger regional base realignment worked out between Japan and the United States in 2006.
But Panetta said the U.S. military is still strongly behind the 2006 plan.
“I will make clear to them that we continue to support our commitment with Japan with regards to Futenma and with regard to Okinawa,” he said. “My goal will be to ensure that steps are being taken to try to fulfill that commitment.”