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Defense secretary reasserts U.S. support of Asian allies

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JAMM AQUINO / jaquino@staradvertiser.com

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a stroll on the deck of the USS Missouri Tuesday at Pearl Harbor during his stopover en route to Singapore.

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JAMM AQUINO / jaquino@staradvertiser.com

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the media at the USS Missouri on Tuesday.

Amid mounting Western Pacific political tensions and an impending visit to Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reaffirmed Tuesday the nation’s commitment to having a military presence in East Asia.

"The critical message is that even as we look at … budget reductions, there’s no slacking in the U.S. commitment to our presence in Asia," he said.

"We are a Pacific nation. We will remain a Pacific nation."

Gates made the statement during a brief news conference at the Battleship Missouri Museum in Pearl Harbor, as he observed Memorial Day and visited the vessel upon which Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II.

Gates is scheduled to travel to Singapore to meet with defense ministers of Asian nations Friday through Sunday at the 10th International Institute for Strategic Studies Asian Security Summit, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Gates said the Battleship Missouri serves as a reminder of people who have served in the military and those who made the supreme sacrifice for the United States.

He said he visited troops of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division in Iraq, and he praised them for their military service. "I tell you they’re doing a terrific job," he said.

Facing economic woes at home, some U.S. senators are raising questions about the planned reorganization of American forces in East Asia.

Senate Foreign Relations chairman Jim Webb, D-Va., said the relocation of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 is unworkable and unaffordable.

Webb wants the Marine Corps to consider revising its plan for Guam to a "stripped-down presence" with a headquarters element supported by rotating troops.

Webb, along with U.S. Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, wants the Defense Department to review its plans for South Korea, Guam and Okinawa.

The review of troop deployment comes at a time when China is claiming sovereignty and jurisdiction over the South China Sea, including oil and gas rights, and is in conflict with Vietnam and Exxon Mobil.

In September a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese coast guard ship near the disputed archipelago Senkaku, where there are nearby potential deep-sea oil and gas reserves.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye has said U.S. forces are crucial to balancing a rising China.

Without U.S. presence in the East-Asia Pacific region, Japan would increase its military strength, leading to an arms race among neighboring nations and eventual bloodshed, Inouye warned.

Japan’s surprise attack on U.S. military forces at Pearl Harbor and other Hawaii locations on Dec. 7, 1941, prompted the United States to enter World War II against Axis powers, including Germany, Japan and Italy.

The war with Japan ended on Sept. 2, 1945, with the formal surrender by its representatives aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Inouye, a recipient of the Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery while serving in Europe with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, is touring Japan this week to meet with leaders and look at areas damaged by the March tsunami.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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