US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Japan on Monday hoping to persuade Tokyo to relocate a military base whichWashington 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 falter.
“I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region,” Panetta told the ASEAN ministers at the meeting in Bali late Sunday.
“I know you have probably all been following the budget debate in the United States with keen interest and are questioning whether we will follow through on these commitments,” Panetta said in a speech to the ministers.
“Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia,” he said. “This commitment will not change.”
Panetta also praised Beijing for what he said was a restrained response to a recent $5.85 billion 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 push forward with 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 frustrations 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.