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U.S. military presence in Asia to remain firm despite budget cut: Panetta

BALI, Indonesia, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- Making his first trip to Asia as U.S. defense chief, Leon Panetta sought to dispel concern that Washington's plan to slash its defense budget in the coming years would diminish its military presence and operations in Asia.

"Our goal is to try to strengthen the alliances that are there and to try to ensure that we build new partnerships to try to improve the security in that region," he told reporters before meeting with his counterparts from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali, Indonesia, Sunday.

The defense secretary reaffirmed that the U.S. would not reduce the number of its troops in the region as he opened a group meeting.

Indonesia is the first leg of Panetta's weeklong Asia swing that will also take him to Japan and South Korea.

In a meeting with reporters accompanying him earlier, Panetta also said the U.S. will "remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century."

On North Korea, Panetta, who served as CIA chief, said an ongoing father-to-son power succession process is feared to raise temptation for the communist regime to seek additional provocations.

"I think we always have to be prepared, from a security point of view, to deal with the likelihood that as succession develops in North Korea, that it could lead to greater provocations," Panetta said.

He emphasized the importance of the alliance with South Korea in dealing with the North.

His comments came as the U.S. is set to hold another round of high-level talks with North Korea in Geneva this week.

Panetta is scheduled to begin a three-day trip to Japan later Monday, during which he is expected to discuss the thorny issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa.

He also plans to visit Seoul for the annual Security Consultative Meeting with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin. Around 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.

Panetta succeeded Robert Gates as the U.S. defense chief in July.

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