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CAMP SMITH, Hawaii — The United States will continue to build its military presence in the Pacific over the next five to 10 years, putting a larger percentage of troops in the region and developing more “innovative rotational exchanges and deployments” like those begun recently in Australia, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta met with Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of Pacific Command, at Camp Smith in Hawaii on Thursday morning. The two talked about steps to implement the new Pacific-based strategy as well as the role South Korea will play moving forward, particularly in regard to the threat from North Korea.

President Barack Obama has pledged to send more troops to the Asia-Pacific region for joint training operations and military exercises as the U.S. focus shifts away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In January, the Pentagon released its strategic guidance that stated U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. It called for a “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” saying relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region.

Panetta will be attempting to shore up support for that strategy during his trip, which also includes stops in Singapore, Vietnam and India.

Before leaving Hawaii, which is home to the U.S. Pacific Command, the defense secretary spoke to about 300 servicemembers. Panetta praised the Hawaii-based troops for their role in the “key center for operations around the Pacific region.”

The first stop on his Pacific swing will be in Singapore for Friday’s opening of the annual Shangri-La security summit, involving several Pacific nations.

En route, Panetta spoke to the press about his goal “to build a region that enjoys peace, prosperity, security and stability.”

One element of the plan is creating a region governed by “international rules and international order,” Panetta said.

Additionally, the Pentagon wants to build and modernize partnerships with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has reacted coldly to the perceived U.S. muscle-flexing. Still, Panetta says the Pentagon is interested in improving military-to-military relations with the communist nation. But it isn’t just about the military, Panetta said. The U.S. wants to work with China on challenges both countries face, such as drug trafficking and piracy.

“There are some common challenges that impact on every country in the region, including China,” Panetta said.

The key to building that relationship is “an element of trust,” Panetta said. “We’re going to have bumps in the road … but if there’s an element of trust in the relationship, I think we can make this work.”

The U.S. now has about 330,000 troops and civilian personnel in the Pacific Command region, a number that will likely increase going forward, Panetta said.

However, the Pentagon is moving away from building permanent military bases and instead focusing on a more rotation-based approach being tested now in Australia and being developed for the Philippines and elsewhere, Panetta said. In April, the U.S. sent about 250 Marines to Darwin as part of a new partnership with Australia, with plans to permanently rotate some 2,500 troops through the area for training.

What is unknown is how the ongoing budget fight in Congress will affect the Pentagon’s plans for the Asia-Pacific region.

Republicans and Democrats have been arguing for nearly a year over ways to trim $1.2 trillion in federal spending. If the two sides do not come to an agreement soon, it could trigger an automatic $600 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade. The so-called sequestration mechanism would likely mean the DOD has “to throw [the Pacific] strategy out the window,” Panetta said, urging Congress to act now to avoid that end instead of putting off key decisions until after the election.

After the security dialogues in Singapore with military leaders from several Pacific nations, Panetta will travel to Vietnam and India to talk about America’s expanding presence in the region and to strengthen relationships with those countries.

“One of the things I hope to do in this process is not just to talk to them, but to listen to their needs as well,” Panetta said.

Twitter: @jhlad

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