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US Commander Finds Pacific Peaceful, Except for China, North Korea

The commander of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific says North Korea and China are the biggest concerns for regional security, but that overall the potential for conflict in the region is low. Admiral William Fallon spoke to a House of Representatives committee in Washington Wednesday, and VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Admiral Fallon told the House Armed Services Committee tensions in Asia and the Pacific are lower than they were when he took over the command two years ago, but he still has some concerns.

"I believe that overall the threat of conflict in this region is low and continues to be that," said Admiral Fallon. "There are certainly concerns with the DPRK [North Korea]. Despite the six-party talks their track record has been spotty, to say the least. And the increasing defense budgets in China and their growing military capability are something that we have to keep an eye on."

Admiral Fallon, who will leave his post next week to take command of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, has made developing military relations with China one of his top priorities. He says he has made progress, both in top-level exchanges and other types of contacts, including the first small-scale joint exercises. But he says U.S. leaders need to keep a close eye on China's growing military capability, including such developments as its test of an anti-satellite weapon in January.

"They clearly have been given a task, and that's to be able to take care of a Taiwan situation," he said. "And they know since we are pledged to help Taiwan defend itself that they will need to counter our capabilities. So we see a lot of work, like this anti-satellite shot that's I think clearly designed to counter our capabilities. That said, they have a long way to go."

China has just announced an 18 per cent increase in its defense budget, the highest single-year boost in a long series of substantial annual increases. U.S. officials say the real figure is even higher, and they have called on China to be more open about its defense spending. Admiral Fallon has said the same, but on Wednesday he also said China's military has lagged behind other aspects of the country's modernization, so even with high spending levels it will take some time for China to challenge the U.S. military in the Pacific.

Still, he warned that while most of China's military spending has been for defensive weapons systems, some has been for what he called "strategic" systems. And he said Chinese leaders do not seem to understand the impact their actions have on other countries, including the successful test of the anti-satellite weapon.

Admiral Fallon also welcomed the recent six-party agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, but he expressed concern about whether the country will live up to its commitments. Appearing with Admiral Fallon at the hearing, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, General Burwell Bell, had a similar view.

"As you would expect, I remain cautious about North Korea's long-term intentions," said General Bell. "Kim Jung Il has a history of manipulating the international community in an attempt to shape the political and military environment to meet his objectives. And obviously his highly provocative military actions this past year, including unprecedented missile firings and the detonation of this nuclear device, represent a continuing threat to international peace and security."

General Bell also endorsed recent decisions to reduce the number of U.S. forces in South Korea, to move most of them south of Seoul and to give South Korea control of its own forces in case of war. The two countries recently agreed to make that last change in 2012.

On other issues, the Pacific commander, Admiral Fallon, lamented recent military coups in Thailand and Fiji, calling them steps backward in countries that had been committed to democracy. He praised the Philippine military for taking a more consistent approach in fighting insurgents in the south, with U.S. help, and having a significant impact.

The admiral also noted a significant change in U.S. defense relations with India. He said the United States needs to demonstrate to India that it can be a reliable defense partner and supplier of military equipment. In the past, India has relied on Russia and the former Soviet Union as its main strategic partner.