Yokota Air Base: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Japan on Monday hoping to persuade Tokyo to relocate a military base which Washington says is vital to its role as a Pacific power.

In his first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, Panetta is seeking to reassure allies that the US remains engaged in the region as a counterweight to the growing might of China.

Part of that engagement, he will tell Japanese officials, means moving ahead with the planned relocation of a marine airbase on an island chain in the south that is home to around half of the nearly 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan.

Panetta's Asian tour has already taken him to Indonesia where he told regional figures that budget cuts at home would not stymie Washington's engagement in the Pacific, even as he offered rare praise for China.

In a meeting with defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), some of whose members have been locked in disputes with Beijing over the resource-rich South China Sea, Panetta said Washington's commitment to the region would not falter.

"I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region," Panetta told the ASEAN ministers at the meeting in Bali on Sunday.

"I know you have probably all been following the budget debate in the United States with keen interest and are questioning whether we will follow through on these commitments," Panetta said in a speech to the ministers.

"Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia," he said. "This commitment will not change."

Panetta also praised Beijing for what he said was a restrained response to a recent USD 5.85 billion arms package for Taiwan.

"I guess I would commend them for the way that they've handled the news of that sale to Taiwan," Panetta said.

China has condemned the US deal to upgrade Taiwan's fleet of F-16 fighter jets. But unlike over previous US sales to Taiwan, it has not so far cut off military contacts with Washington.

In Tokyo, where he will meet Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tomorrow, Panetta will seek to push forward with a stalled plan to move the Futenma air base from an overcrowded urban part of Okinawa to a rural coast.

Local objections to the move, which would also see 8,000 troops redeployed outside Japan, have seen the plan put on ice, sparking frustrations in Washington and chilling relations with Tokyo.

(Agencies)