By Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy in Tokyo, Japan
If there's been one theme U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has tried to hammer home at every opportunity during his weeklong tour of Asia it is this: "The United States, as a Pacific nation, is and will remain a Pacific power in this region. We will always maintain a strong presence in the Pacific."
Those assurances come from a defense secretary facing major cuts at home.
"It's no secret that the United States faces some very tough fiscal decisions back home," Panetta said Tuesday during a news conference with the Japanese defense minister. "But let me reassure the people of Japan: The one thing that we have agreed upon is that the Pacific will remain a key priority.
I will continue to strengthen our forces in this part of the world."
So if the Department of Defense has to make cuts, and it's clear it will, how will the American military be strengthened in the Far East? Perhaps by looking to the west.
The U.S. military will be out of Iraq by New Year's Day and the mission in Libya with NATO could be over by Halloween. Even in Afghanistan, where no one is claiming victory, America's troop presence is shrinking; 10,000 troops are to come out by the end of 2011.
Panetta called it a "turning point after a decade of war."
Will the Pacific nations that count on the U.S. military benefit from that "turning point"?
Panetta hinted Monday that might be the case.
"We have the opportunity now to be able to focus on those challenges," he told a gathering of American troops at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. " Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific. And we will."
But when asked at his Tuesday news conference about some details, he wasn't clear.
"There are a number of steps that we can take, it seems to me, to strengthen our position in the Pacific," he said. One of the few specifics he mentioned was more training exercises for U.S. troops and their Japanese counterparts.
The focus on Asia echoes remarks made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech she gave about the future of American foreign policy. In it, she said the United States needs to move from a foreign policy centered on danger, like the wars, to one focusing on finding opportunities.
"Probably the greatest opportunities in the years ahead will be found in the Asia Pacific region, which is why we have renewed America's leadership and pre-eminent role there," Clinton said in the speech October 12.