Panetta tells Navy graduates peace in Asia-Pacific the next ‘great’ challenge

"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. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific," said Panetta in Annapolis, Md.

The Defense chief said ensuring peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region will be one of the "great challenges" for the next generation of naval officers.

He called on the incoming officers to work towards strengthening historic alliances, as well as building "robust" partnerships with countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and India.

The secretary also spoke specifically of the need to "strengthen defense ties with China."

"China’s military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to peace in that region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries — one in which our militaries share security burdens to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world," he said, according remarks released by the Defense Department.

Panetta said he will be traveling to Southeast Asia Wednesday and will visit China for the first time as secretary of Defense later this year. 

President Obama announced in January that more of the military's attention would shift to the Asia-Pacific region as “the tide of war is receding” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was Panetta's first graduation speech since becoming Defense secretary. He delivered the commencement speech at the University of Maryland in 2009 as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Obama and Vice President Biden also delivered commencement speeches at U.S. military academies this spring.

The president touted his administration’s foreign-policy achievements in an address to graduating cadets at the Air Force Academy last week, telling graduates that the United States was entering “a different world.”

“You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in your lives, and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part, Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country,” said Obama last Wednesday in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The vice president echoed Obama's remarks, telling the graduating class at West Point Saturday that the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has allowed the United States to "rebalance" its foreign policy.