GROTON, Connecticut (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared to call China and India "threats" on Thursday, in comments that the Pentagon quickly sought to correct.
Panetta, addressing workers at a submarine plant in Connecticut, was talking about emerging challenges facing the United States as it looks beyond the Iraq and Afghan wars.
After detailing the threat of cyber warfare, Panetta turned to concerns over "rising powers."
"We face the threats from rising powers, China, India, others that we have to always be aware of," Panetta said.
"And (we have to) try to make sure that we always have sufficient force protection out there in the Pacific to make sure they know we're never going anywhere."
His remarks came the same day that President Barack Obama said on a visit to Australia that the U.S. military would expand its role in the Asia-Pacific region despite budget cuts. Obama declared America was "here to stay" as a Pacific power.
Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby moved to correct the record, saying Panetta believed that relationships with both China and India were absolutely vital.
"Any suggestion that he was implying either country was a military threat is just false," Kirby said.
Kirby said Panetta was referring instead to the challenges that China and India face "within themselves."
"And (he was referring to) the challenges that we share with them as we try to forge better relationships going forward in a very turbulent, dynamic security environment," Kirby said.
Panetta made the comments after touring a nuclear-powered, Virginia-class attack submarine in the very final phase of construction. The U.S. submarine fleet is considered one of the most important counters to China's growing military might, which includes advances in missile technology that make surface targets easier to reach.
Obama also announced this week that the United States will extend the military's reach into Southeast Asia with Marines, naval ships and aircraft deployed to northern Australia from 2012.
China has questioned the deployment to Australia, raising doubts whether strengthening such alliances will help the region pull together at a time of economic gloom.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Walsh)