The commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Admiral Timothy Keating, says North Korea will likely be at the top of his successor's list of concerns after their change-of-command in October, but that other issues, including the continuing growth of China's military, will also need attention.
North Korea tops the list of concerns for Admiral Timothy Keating in his remaining time as head of Pacific Command. He says although the US Pacific Command deals with a huge area, his successor will probably continue to focus on one small piece of it.
"North Korea is clearly going to be at the top of that list. We are watching as carefully as we can across the spectrum of intelligence agencies and diplomatic initiatives. And we are prepared to respond should they tragically embark on any kinetic military activity," he said.
North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles, and it is working on a long-range missile -- so far without success. But beyond that, Keating says the real problem is the lack of clarity about the intentions of North Korea's leaders. "We could assess, but not predict. We develop this 'school of thought' as to likelihood of eventualities," Keating said.
China's intentions are also unclear, Admiral Keating says. The uncertainty is not as extreme, he says, but China's military capability is much greater and is growing fast. "We'd like to understand better their intentions, their military intentions," he said.
The United States is the preeminent military power in the Pacific and intends to remain so. But China is getting more involved in regional security issues, leading some analysts to worry about a future confrontation.
"I'm not so concerned about China challenging our preeminence. We enjoy significant capability, so China's not going to challenge our preeminence anytime soon. That's not the concern. It's the notion that, absent dialogue, there's the potential for lack of communication leading to confusion, leading to a crisis," the admiral said.
In the last year, China has limited its military exchanges with the United States to protest a US military sale to Taiwan last October. And the concern has grown.
Admiral Keating says he had "positive" contacts with senior Chinese military officers during that period, but the contacts were not frequent enough.
During talks in July, the two countries agreed to resume routine military contacts and visits by senior defense officials.
The admiral says he hopes China sticks to its stated desire for a "peaceful rise," and he believes more U.S.-China military exchanges would contribute to that. "If they want to send folks to some of our professional military educational institutions, we're happy to consider that. And we would like some reciprocity. And there are initial discussions underway on the exchange of educational opportunities," he said.
Besides North Korea and China, Keating says many other issues are on his list of top concerns for his successor, Admiral Robert Willard, who currently commands the American Pacific Fleet. "I would recommend to him emphasizing the strength of the alliances that we share all throughout the region -- from Australia through New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea and Japan -- the strengthening of relationship we enjoy with India, and the overall architecture of cooperation and collaboration that's being embraced by more and more countries," Keating said.
Admiral Keating's departure from Pacific Command will end a long military career, which he began as a pilot flying from aircraft carriers in the 1970s.
Keating says he does not know yet what he will do in retirement, but he hopes to continue serving his country in some way.