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WASHINGTON – In his first trip to the Pacific region since taking office, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be seeking to build new ties while reassuring old allies that a strong presence in the region is a U.S. priority.

Panetta will leave Washington on Friday, scheduled for stops in Indonesia, Japan and South Korea against a backdrop of looming Pentagon budget cuts, growing Chinese assertiveness in the region and continuing struggles to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.

On the island of Bali on Sunday, Panetta will meet with Indonesian officials as well as others from around the region on the “margins” of an Association of South East Asian Nations summit, a Pentagon official said Thursday.

“It’s an opportunity to emphasize in this setting our commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, our commitment to Southeast Asia, our commitment to continuing to enhance our posture in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

An enhanced posture, however, doesn’t mean U.S. networking in the region is aimed at containing China, the official said.

“None of this is targeted at any nation, anywhere,” the official said. “It’s really about building connections amongst and between the nations of ASEAN and United States, which is something we’ve been doing for many years now.”

Later in the week, high-level talks in Japan are expected to focus in part on contentious issues surrounding U.S. military bases there, including complex plans to expand, move or otherwise realign the facilities.

Residents of Okinawa have fought bilateral plans to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a nearby location, arguing such a move would cause ecological havoc. The Japanese government, however, has stood firm on Futenma and the larger base realignment question, which would see thousands of troops ultimately relocated from Japan to Guam. Additionally, the U.S. intends to consolidate several bases in South Korea.

The planned moves have also drawn flak from the U.S. Congress, where a bipartisan group of influential senators has declared the plans too complex, slow-moving and pricey – with an estimated cost of $27 billion.

Nevertheless, Panetta and his Japanese counterparts will meet with the intention of pushing ahead with the Futenma plan, another Pentagon official said Thursday.

“[We] remain committed to our current plans to maintain a forward presence in the region,” the official said. “The current set of agreements have been very, very carefully developed over many many years in close consultation and collaboration with our allies and within the U.S. government.”

In Seoul later in the week, Panetta will meet with officials including the president and minister of defense in an annual security meeting.

Panetta’s South Korea visit will roughly coincide with the resumption of direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea over the issue of nuclear disarmament.

“The secretary will reinforce the U.S. commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance, as well as our determination to deter North Korea, and if deterrence fails, to prevail in any conflict,” the official said.

The meetings may also broach the touchy subject of what South Korean officials say is a rising incidence of crimes committed by U.S. troops, including two recent alleged rapes of South Korean women.

Panetta is scheduled to fly back to the United States next Friday.

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: Chris Carroll_

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