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Mr. Panetta said the pivot to Asia is not solely about “moving more ships or aircraft or troops to the region.”

“We want to deepen and modernize our existing partnerships and alliances, and we want to build regional institutions, particularly working with ASEAN,” he said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Panetta-future update

As reported in this column last week, Mr. Panetta’s future as defense secretary in the second Obama administration is a hot topic since President Obama’s re-election.

Mr. Panetta provided reporters traveling with him to Asia a “two-handed” answer to the question of whether he will continue on in the second Obama administration.

One the one hand, Mr. Panetta said “it’s no secret that, at some point, I’d like to get back to California. It’s my home, and we have our institute.”

On the other hand, he added: “But there are a lot of challenges right now with regards to defense issues in Washington – sequestration, budget issues, issues related to planning on Afghanistan – and I think the president and I are working very closely to make sure that we meet those defense challenges.”

Mr. Panetta said his current goal is to deal with those issues.

Pressed on whether he intends to stay four more years, the defense secretary stated: “Who the hell knows?”