Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 13, 2011.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 13, 2011.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is on his way to Asia where he plans to offer reassurance to allies in the region.

It is Panetta?s first trip to the region since becoming secretary of defense and his aim is to strengthen ties with friends of the United States in the region. His first stop is Indonesia, followed by Japan and South Korea.

The trip comes as the United States draws down its troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turns its attention to Asia, where a number of nations have disputes with China and concerns over Beijing?s expanding military.

Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress research organization, said that although China is not on Panetta?s itinerary, it looms large over the visit.

?It?s important to convey to our friends and allies in Asia that we will not let China take advantage of its military buildup to push other agendas, whether they?re over disputed islands, disputed territories, access to markets; to let those people know that we?re there to balance China if they should decide to use their power aggressively,? said Korb.

A senior U.S. defense official said China is not one of the stops due to scheduling, not political reasons.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, Panetta meets with defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.  

In Japan, the defense secretary will discuss arms sales and plans to transfer a U.S. Marine Corps air station in Okinawa to another location on the island - a move opposed by many island residents.

Panetta?s visit to South Korea will come as the United States prepares to restart direct talks with North Korea about its nuclear ambitions.  

Pyongyang walked out of multi-nation negotiations two years ago and there is no indication that the North is bringing any new proposals to the table that could move the process along. However, Korb said it will be useful for Washington to reassure its key partners in the region that it is keeping up the pressure on Pyongyang.

?What Secretary Panetta has to assure the allies, particularly the South Koreans and Japanese, (is) that in these talks, the United States is going to continue to insist that North Korea be much more transparent about its nuclear program and not proceed any further, because the countries - specifically South Korea and Japan - are concerned that North Korea is on the road to getting a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability,? said Korb.

Since abandoning talks, North Korea has carried out a second nuclear test, test-fired missiles, and announced it has developed the ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Pentagon officials say the secretary of defense will stress what they say is Washington?s determination to deter North Korea and to prevail in any conflict that breaks out should those deterrence efforts fail.