By David Alexander
LIMA (Reuters) - The United States and Peru decided on Saturday to renegotiate a 60-year-old defense cooperation agreement between the two countries as Washington seeks to deepen security ties with Latin America after a decade focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said updating the 1952 bilateral defense agreement with Peru would help the two countries work more closely on issues of mutual concern, from terrorism and drug trafficking to response to natural disasters.
"We have agreed to begin this process with the aim of improving and modernizing the agreement," Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano told a joint news conference. Panetta said updating the accord would "improve our ability to conduct joint activities, to do training and other exchanges."
"Ultimately that will help us deal with shared security challenges in the future," the U.S. defense secretary said.
The effort would update the Cold War-era document to take into consideration current threats facing the two sides and legal developments, including a new Peruvian constitution as well as new laws.
The decision is part of a new U.S. defense strategy approved earlier this year that shifts strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region while deepening training and assistance to partner nations to help them provide for their own defense.
"The principle thrust of our ... new defense strategy is aimed at reaching out and developing partnerships and alliances throughout the world and particularly in this region," Panetta said on Saturday after meeting with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.
The Pentagon released a Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement on Thursday that gave additional details about how the new strategy would be implemented in Latin America.
The statement called for focusing on 21st century threats like terrorism and drug trafficking, helping partners develop and professionalize their military forces and promoting integration and interoperability.
Washington is especially worried about drug trafficking and violence in Mexico and Central America and cocaine production and rebel groups in Peru and Colombia.
But with a long and complicated history of interventions and meddling in Latin America, the United States will have to overcome deep suspicions as it moves to build deeper military ties in a region where stable democracies have taken root in recent decades.
Panetta, speaking to reporters at the start of his three-day visit to Latin America, lauded the "remarkable transformation" that has taken place in the region in recent years, saying many countries were doing increasingly more "to advance peace and security within and beyond their borders."
"Their efforts are promoting security and stability not only in the Americas but across the globe and provide the United states with a historic opportunity to renew and strengthen our defense partnerships across the region," he said.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru and Chile were increasingly seen as "security exporters," promoting global peace and security by providing troops for U.N. peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian missions.
"These countries have a growing capability, and I'd say a political will, to contribute more to regional and global security," the official said, adding that the United States wanted to help them expand and improve those capabilities.
Panetta plans to pursue that goal as he meets with counterparts at a conference of American defense ministers beginning on Sunday in Uruguay, where he expects to have separate talks with officials from Uruguay, El Salvador, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
The senior U.S. defense official said the conference presented a "historic opportunity" because defense ministers were considering a Chilean initiative to create a database that would enable the participating countries to coordinate their disaster response efforts.
The official said one of the lessons learned from the recent Haiti earthquake disaster is that failure to coordinate military assistance and relief efforts costs lives. By sharing information about the available relief assets, they can enable the country hit by the disaster to choose the assets it needs and avoid duplication and delay.
If the defense ministers do agree to pursue the Chilean initiative, it will be the first time since they began meeting in 1996 to discuss policy and other issues that they have put into motion a concrete action, the U.S. official said, marking a significant step forward. (Editing by Eric Walsh)