By Lee Chi-dong, Yonhap
WASHINGTON -- The United States plans to expand the presence of its Marines in Asia in tandem with diplomatic initiatives towards the increasingly important region, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Tuesday.
Speaking at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta assured lawmakers that U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific area won't be weakened by envisioned steep budget cuts.
"That's obviously a primary concern for us, because we do believe that it is important to maintain a strong presence in the Pacific," he said.
He said the Pentagon will "maintain an additional rotational presence with our Marines throughout the area."
The U.S. has already forged a deal with Australia for a rotational presence and it is working with the Philippines for a similar agreement.
He stressed the importance of naval aircraft carriers that enable "quick deployment." The U.S. has 11 carriers in the Pacific area.
Panetta reiterated that North Korea and Iran pose threats to global stability.
The Secretary urged Congress to approve a 2013 defense budget plan, which calls for a 32-billion-dollar reduction from this year.
If Congress fails to agree by January 2013 on ways to slash federal budget deficits, the Pentagon will be forced to cut about an additional $500 billion over the next decade.
"I know these are tough issues. This is the beginning; it's not the end of this process. But make no mistake: The savings that we are proposing are significant and broad-based and will impact on all 50 states," Panetta said.
Many Republican members of Congress, however, claim that the Obama administration should focus on reducing spending on the domestic front, not on national security.
"Unfortunately, this defense budget continues the administration's habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said.
Meanwhile, the department plans to scale down personnel in the Army and Marine Corps.
The number of active Army personnel will be cut from 562,000 to 490,000 by 2017, while that of Marine Corps will be cut from 202,000 to 182,000.
"Our goal is to expand our rotational presence" in Asia and the Middle East, added Panetta.