US defense secretary Leon Panetta left for Japan on Monday after telling regional allies gathered in Indonesia that Washington would remain a Pacific force despite budget cuts, while offering rare praise for China.
In a meeting with defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), some of whose members have been locked in disputes with China over the resource-rich South China Sea, Panetta gave assurances that Washington's firm commitment to the region would not falter.
"I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region," Panetta told the ASEAN ministers at the meeting in Bali late Sunday.
On his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, he told allies that budget cuts to trim the US deficit would not weaken Washington's Pacific role.
"I know you have probably all been following the budget debate in the United States with keen interest and are questioning whether we will follow through on these commitments," Panetta said in a speech to the ministers.
"Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia," he said. "This commitment will not change."
On the South China Sea disputes, Washington has called for a regional code of conduct and insisted on "freedom of navigation" through the crucial global shipping route despite Beijing's territorial claims.
But in rare praise for China, Panetta commended Beijing for what he said was a restrained response to Washington's latest arms package for Taiwan announced last month.
"I guess I would commend them for the way that they've handled the news of that sale to Taiwan," Panetta said.
China has condemned the $5.85 billion US deal to upgrade Taiwan's fleet of F-16 fighter jets. But unlike over previous US sales to Taiwan, it has not so far cut off military contacts with Washington.
"My hope is to improve our military to military relationship with the Chinese," Panetta said.
In a meeting early Monday with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Panetta promised to help upgrade Jakarta's own ageing military hardware.
"Panetta promised that the US will help strengthen the TNI's (Indonesian military's) equipment and radar systems," Indonesian defence ministry spokesman Hartind Asrin told AFP.
The United States is helping the Indonesians with a radar system to monitor the Malacca Strait, which connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and has been plagued with piracy.
Washington also has agreed to grant older 30 F-16 fighters to the Indonesian air force which are surplus to US requirements.
The United States resumed military cooperation with Indonesia in July 2010 under Panetta's predecessor Robert Gates, after more than a decade's suspension since former dictator Suharto was toppled in 1998.
Panetta said in Bali that Washington would continue to develop military ties with Indonesia but keep a watchful eye on human rights abuses in the country, which is fighting separatist movements in regions including Papua province.
Panetta headed to Japan ahead of sensitive direct talks between the United States and North Korea in Geneva on Monday to try to lay the ground for reviving long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Before any broader discussions, the United States, South Korea and Japan are insisting the North take concrete steps to demonstrate it is sincere about resuming full six-party nuclear talks which also include Russia and China.