WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon chief says building U.S. maritime strength across the Asia-Pacific will be the main project for the new generation of America’s naval officers.

Speaking to this year’s graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that America is returning to its maritime roots.

He told graduates that their work will help strengthen defense ties with China as well as modernize ties with old allies like Japan and Korea and build new partnerships with countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.

Panetta also says the military will protect its investments in cybersecurity and special operations forces.

“We will ensure our military can confront aggression and defeat any opponent anytime, anywhere,” Panetta said at the graduation. “And we will protect investments in new capabilities from cyber to unmanned systems, to space to special operations forces.”

Panetta also said that the Navy and Marine Corps will be fundamental in doing that.

“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. Panetta added that alliances in the Pacific region will be critical.

There and across the globe, Panetta said, the Navy and Marine Corps must lead a resurgence of American maritime presence and power.

Panetta spoke Tuesday to 1,099 total graduates, including 877 men and 222 women. Of that number, a total of 810 graduates will be commissioned as Navy ensigns. There were also 267 students who were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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