US won't cut forces in Asia: Pentagon

Updated: 2011-10-25 09:36


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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ruled out troop cuts in Asia as part of US belt-tightening as he arrived in Japan on Monday.

Panetta, on his first trip to Asia since taking over the Pentagon's top job in July, has been assuring allies in the region that the US military will maintain a strong posture in the Pacific despite looming defence spending cuts at home.

"We are not anticipating any cutbacks in this region. If anything we are going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific," Panetta, a former CIA director, told a gathering of US and Japanese forces at Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo.

In an opinion piece he published in a newspaper in Indonesia - his first stop on his Asia tour -- Panetta acknowledged US allies have expressed concern "that America may not follow through on our commitments in this region."

But Panetta said the complete US military withdrawal from Iraq this year and the gradual drawdown in Afghanistan would enable the United States to shift more attention to the Asia-Pacific region. They would also allow for more focus on concerns like the threat posed by cyber warfare technologies.

"We have the opportunity now to be able to focus on those challenges," Panetta told the gathering. "Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific. And we will."

Panetta's stop in Japan follows a meeting in Indonesia with defence mnisters from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations. After visiting Japan, he completes his week-long visit to Asia in South Korea.

In Tokyo, Panetta was expected to press Japanese leaders to move ahead with long-delayed plans to relocate the Marines' Futenma air base to a less populated area of Okinawa island -- reluctant host to around half of the roughly 50,000 US forces stationed in Japan.

The Futenma relocation is part of a broader realignment of US forces that would shift some 8,000 troops to the Pacific island of Guam.

"It's very important that Japan proceed with obviously moving forward with Futenma, getting the appropriate permits that are required," he told reporters in Indonesia on Sunday.

Japan's government wants to submit to Okinawa by year-end an environmental impact assessment needed before the governor of Okinawa can sign off on the base transfer. But there is no guarantee that the governor will agree to the relocation plan even once that happens.