U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday lashed out at North Korea for "reckless and provocative" acts and criticized China for a secretive expansion of its military power.
Panetta, who arrived at this U.S. air base on the second leg of a weeklong Asia tour, spoke out about North Korea and China in an opinion piece published Monday by Japan's Yomiyuri newspaper before his arrival.
He wrote that Washington and Tokyo share common challenges in the Asia-Pacific.
"These include North Korea, which continues to engage in reckless and provocative behavior and is developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which pose a threat not just to Japan but to the entire region," he wrote.
Panetta's strong language comes as U.S. and North Korean officials gather in Geneva for talks that Washington says are aimed at determining whether Pyongyang is serious about returning to nuclear disarmament talks.
Japan also worries about North Korea and is one of five countries that have jointly tried to persuade the North Koreans to cap and reverse their nuclear arms program. The other four are the U.S., China, Russia and South Korea.
'Troubling lack of transparency'
Panetta is on his first trip to Asia since taking over the Pentagon's top job in July, and has been assuring allies in the region that the U.S. military will maintain a strong posture in the Pacific despite looming defense spending cuts at home.
Panetta also criticized China.
"China is rapidly modernizing its military," he wrote in Monday's opinion piece, "but with a troubling lack of transparency, coupled with increasingly assertive activity in the East and South China Seas."
He wrote that Japan and the U.S. would work together to "encourage China to play a responsible role in the international community."
Tokyo's ties with Beijing deteriorated last year following a flare-up near disputed East China Sea islets.
Questions about a potential decline in U.S. military power in the Pacific due to America's fiscal woes come as China's military invests heavily in new technologies, including its aircraft carrier program, stealth fighter jet and an anti-ship ballistic missile.
In comments to U.S. troops in Italy this month, Panetta cited concerns about China as one reason the U.S. military presence in the Pacific was so critical.
"In the Pacific, we're concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific," Panetta said.
"To have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely."
A day earlier, in Bali, Indonesia, Panetta offered more positive remarks about China. He told reporters that Beijing deserved praise for a relatively mild response to a $5.8 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan announced in September.
Panetta is not visiting China on this trip.
Marine base relocation
In Tokyo, Panetta was expected to press Japanese leaders to move ahead with long-delayed plans to relocate the Marines' Futenma air base to a less populated area of Okinawa island — reluctant host to around half of the 50,000 U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
The Futenma relocation is part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces that would shift some 8,000 troops to the Pacific island of Guam.
"It's very important that Japan proceed with obviously moving forward with Futenma, getting the appropriate permits that are required," he told reporters in Indonesia on Sunday.
Japan's government wants to submit to Okinawa by year-end an environmental impact assessment needed before the governor of Okinawa can sign off on the base transfer. But there is no guarantee that the governor will agree to the relocation plan even once that happens.
"It's been going on a long period of time. It's important now to move forward," Panetta said.