By ELISABETH BUMILLER
BALI, Indonesia — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on Sunday that despite hundreds of billions of dollars in expected cuts to the Pentagon budget, the United States would remain a Pacific power even as China expanded its military presence in the region.
Mr. Panetta, who is on his first trip to Asia as defense secretary, made the comments at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations on this Indonesian resort island. He sought to reassure Pacific nations that are concerned about China’s assertiveness that the United States, as he put it, would be “a force for peace and prosperity” here.
He acknowledged that nations in the region were worried about the impact of at least $450 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over the next decade and whether the United States could afford to maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific.
“There’s no question that those concerns have been expressed,” Mr. Panetta told reporters before meeting with the defense ministers of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But, Mr. Panetta said, “I’ve made clear that even with the budget constraints that we are facing in the United States,” there is “no question that in discussions within the Pentagon, and discussions in the White House, that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America.”
Mr. Panetta offered no specifics, although he said that the United States would maintain its “force projection” in the region — some 85,000 troops in all, largely in South Korea and Japan.
Although he did not mention it, the United States is also stepping up investments in a range of weapons, jet fighters and technology in response to China’s military prowess.
In the past year, China has tested its first radar-evading fighter jet, the J-20, and is developing an antiship ballistic missile that has the potential of hitting American aircraft carriers. China is also in sea trials with its first aircraft carrier, a refitted Soviet-era carrier from Ukraine. And the People’s Liberation Army — with some 1.25 million ground troops, the largest in the world — is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focused force by 2020.
The Chinese military remains focused on Taiwan, which it claims as part of its sovereign territory, and has deployed as many as 1,200 short-range missiles aimed in its direction.
At the same time, China has become involved in a number of maritime disputes with countries in the region over its claims to the South China Sea. On some Chinese maps, China’s territorial claims extend south nearly to the coast of Indonesia — a source of aggravation to top Obama administration officials.
Earlier this month, Mr. Panetta was blunt about his worries. “We’re concerned about China,” he told American service members in Naples, Italy. “The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific — to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.”
Mr. Panetta will also visit Japan and South Korea this week.
- Indonesia, US to discuss army ties (channelnewsasia) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Panetta Praises China on Taiwan Arms Reaction (abcnews.go.com)
- Panetta makes first Asia trip as Defense chief (seattletimes.nwsource.com)