Asia rebalance remains US priority amid fiscal woes: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Obama administration policy of shifting its security focus to the Asia-Pacific region will remain on track despite drastic US budget cuts looming this week, the top Pentagon official for Asia said on Wednesday.

In late 2011, the administration articulated a policy for a"pivot" or "rebalance" of its diplomatic and security focus to East Asia as it winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US fiscal crisis has raised questions about the US ability to follow through on these plans.

"The rebalance is a priority and we'll work to see that continue," said Mark Lippert, assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific affairs, as Washington braced for US$85 billion (S$ 105.93 billion) in government-wide budget cuts, known as a sequester, starting on Friday.

"The hardest thing about sequestration is the unpredictability and turbulence in terms of short-term funding and planning," he said.

"What we're doing is trying to work to adapt and overcome and make sure the rebalance continues over the long term,"Lippert told a symposium of regional security experts, some of whom questioned US resolve in the face of fiscal pressures.

Lippert said this policy, based on shoring up alliances and partnerships and strengthening forward deployments and power projection in Asia, "will continue on in the current form" in the second administration of Barack Obama.

The Pentagon official also tried to assuage China over the policy. Beijing has criticised the rebalance as encirclement of the rising Asian power and says the US policy has emboldened Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in longstanding territorial disputes with China that intensified in 2012.

Washington sees the policy as "providing enough security to be reassuring but working hard to carefully manage perceptions to ensure that the rebalance is not seen as a military-only, military-first strategy," said Lippert.

"The rebalance is not a zero-sum game with Beijing (and) it's not a contain-China strategy - in fact, a strong bilateral relationship with China is part of the rebalance," said Lippert.

The Pentagon's goal remains to forge robust military ties with the Chinese military at all levels through increased visits and exchanges of officers and civilian military leaders.

"We have worked with the Chinese on a very good slate of reciprocal visits this year, and I think that those are very encouraging. Building off some good momentum last year, I think this will be a another step forward in the (military to military) relationship," said Lippert.