TOKYO – A strong U.S.-Japan alliance will grow stronger as the United States pulls out of conflicts in the Middle East and increasingly turns its attention toward the Pacific as a nexus for U.S. security concerns, leaders from both countries said Tuesday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa spoke jointly to the press at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, following Panetta’s earlier meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro Gemba.

North Korea’s provocative behavior and China’s growing military might are challenges both countries will face together, Panetta said.

“The forward presence of U.S. forces here is not merely a symbol of U.S. commitment to Japan, but also a symbol of our commitment to the peace and security that must exist across the Pacific region,” Panetta said.

Ichikawa said he and Panetta had agreed the United States and Japan should step up joint military exercises and surveillance activities, and would increasingly use bases and other facilities jointly to accomplish common aims.

Japan and the United States should also seek to deepen defense cooperation with both South Korea and Australia, Panetta said.

“Together we will also work to encourage China’s emergence as a responsible and positive partner in building regional stability and prosperity, cooperating on global issues, and upholding international norms and rules of behavior,” he said.

Panetta hammered home a point he has made repeatedly on his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region as defense secretary: “The one thing that we have determined in discussions as to our future strategy – the one thing we are agreed upon – is that the Pacific will remain a key priority.”

Panetta is scheduled to travel Wednesday to South Korea, the last stop on his Asian trip, where he’ll meet with both U.S. troops and South Korean leaders.

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now