By Phil Stewart
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left on Friday for his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, aiming to reassure allies that the U.S. military will keep a strong presence in the Pacific -- even in an era of belt-tightening.
Such assurances cannot be taken for granted. The U.S. military is facing at least $450 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade, reductions Panetta told last week Congress would take the Pentagon "to the edge."
It is also gradually drawing down forces from Afghanistan and, as President Barack Obama announced on Friday, completely withdrawing from Iraq by the end of this year.
As it does so, the Obama administration is expected to shift more attention to Asia, where China's military advances have alarmed neighbors, and where the U.S. military still has more than 80,000 forward-deployed troops in South Korea and Japan alone.
"There's a clear message that I'm going to bring to that region. And the message is this: that we will remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century and we will maintain a strong presence," Panetta told reporters on his flight, without referring explicitly to the budget debate in Washington.
Panetta's first stop will be Bali, the Indonesian island which is playing host to a meeting of defense ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). He will meet on Sunday with ASEAN defense ministers and hold talks with Indonesian leaders.
He then leaves for Japan on Monday before continuing to South Korea on Wednesday to complete the week-long trip, during which he will meet his counterparts and talk with U.S. troops.
Speaking to U.S. forces in Italy earlier this month, Panetta cited his concerns about China as he explained plans to keep a strong U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
"In the Pacific, we're concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific," he said. "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."
Fueled by its booming economy, China's military growth in the past decade has exceeded most U.S. forecasts. Attention has focused on emerging capabilities, like its aircraft carrier program, stealth fighter jet and anti-ship ballistic missile.
China reacted angrily to the Obama administration's decision last month to give Taiwan a $5.85 billion arms package, including upgrades to F-16 A/B fighter aircraft.
Panetta told reporters on his flight to Indonesia the United States wanted a positive relationship with China and stressed it was important that "we continue to communicate. It's important that we work together."
"At the same time, I think that China must recognize that in order to have that kind of relationship, that they have to be transparent," he said.
"And they have to be working with us to try to recognize international rules so that all countries can enjoy security, can enjoy navigation rights, right of passage."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)
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