ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The Pentagon chief said Tuesday building U.S. maritime strength across the Asia-Pacific region will be one of the main projects for the new generation of America's naval officers.
Speaking to graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is returning to its maritime roots.
"One of the key projects that your generation will have to face is sustaining and enhancing American strength across the great maritime region of the Pacific," he said.
He told graduates that their work will help strengthen defense ties with China, modernize ties with old allies like Japan and Korea and build new partnerships with countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.
"America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia," Panetta said. "That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia Pacific."
Panetta said the Navy and Marine Corps must lead a resurgence of American maritime presence and power in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.
"We must be prepared to confront any challenge, but the key to that region is going to be to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries, one in which our military shares security burdens in order to advance peace in Asia Pacific and around the world," Panetta said.
Panetta also said the military will protect its investments in cybersecurity, unmanned systems and special operation forces.
"We will ensure our military can confront aggression and defeat any opponent anytime, anywhere," Panetta said.
The Pentagon chief said he departs on Wednesday for Southeast Asia, and he noted he will visit China later this year for the first time as secretary of defense.
"I will tell all of these nations that the United States will remain a Pacific power, and I will tell them why - because of you - because during your careers many of you will be headed to the Pacific," he said.
There were a total of 1,099 graduates, including 877 men and 222 women. A total of 810 were commissioned as naval officers, including 634 men and 176 women. There were 267 commissioned as officers in the Marine Corps, including 224 men and 43 women. Several graduated as officers in the Air Force and Coast Guard.
Panetta also noted the death last week of retired Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949. He was 85.
The defense secretary cited the academy's diversity, and he noted that some students are gay. This was the first graduating class at the service academy in which gay students could be open about their sexuality after repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in September.
"You are men and women from every state in the union and 12 foreign nations - rich and poor, secular and religious, black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian, straight and gay. Diversity of this class is a tribute to the life and service of retired Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown," Panetta said, bringing cheers and applause from the audience.