By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is placing renewed priority on Asia as it winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has no desire for new bases in the region, the head of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific said on Friday.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the military's goal is to have a network of places close to the sea lanes of Southeast Asia where American forces can visit on rotation, avoiding the costly maintenance of bases.
"There is no desire nor view right now that the U.S. is seeking basing options anywhere in the Asia-Pacific theater," he told reporters in Washington.
Willard spoke as U.S. and Philippine officials were wrapping up two days of strategic talks in Washington that prompted speculation that Washington aimed to reopen bases in the Philippines. The Pentagon flatly denied having new basing plans.
He said his Hawaii-based Pacific Command preferred a model along the lines of plans to set up a Marine training facility in northern Australia and to rotate warships through Singapore.
"As I look at where the forces are and where they need to be present day-to-day, we are biased in Northeast Asia, and when we look at Southeast Asia and South Asia, the pressure is on Pacific Command to deploy and sustain forces there day to day," said Willard.
The Pacific Command has 50,000 U.S. forces stationed in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea.
Willard noted that media and public discussion of the U.S. strategy in Asia portrayed the policy as being aimed at China, with its fast-growing military budget and assertiveness over maritime territory claims in contested waters of the South China Sea.
But the admiral said the Pacific Command's primary mission was protecting sea lanes in the South China Sea that carry $5 trillion in commerce annually, including $1.2 trillion in trade with the United States.
The U.S. goal with China's military was to build closer military-to-military ties, overcoming differing philosophies on the purpose of such contacts, "trust factor" issues and other disputes, said Willard.
High-level U.S.-China dialogue and leaders' meetings like next month's U.S. visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has resulted in a situation where "the military relationship at that strategic level has been ... sustaining itself," said Willard.
"In other ways, at the operational and tactical level, getting our two militaries more acquainted with one another through operations or through counterpart visits have not advanced," he added.
"I'm not satisfied that the military relationship is where it needs to be," said Willard.
(Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Sandra Maler)