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US Commander Calls Chinese Interest in Aircraft Carriers 'Understandable'

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific says China's interest in developing an aircraft carrier fleet is 'understandable,' and that the United States would be willing to help. Admiral Timothy Keating made the comment during a wide-ranging news conference in Beijing Saturday morning. VOA's Al Pessin reports.

Admiral Keating says he believes Chinese leaders are "intrigued" by the idea of having aircraft carriers. But he says they need to understand the impact such a powerful, mobile weapon system can have.

"An aircraft carrier from a country pulls into port, and it is an unmistakable demonstration of will and resolve," he said. "And we had a very good conversation about that. I do not have any better idea as to China's intentions to develop, or not, a carrier program, but we had a very pleasant and candid exchange about the larger issues attendant to a carrier program."

At a lunch Friday with China's navy chief, Vice Admiral Wu Shengli, Admiral Keating stressed the difficulty and complexity of developing, building and operating an aircraft carrier. But at his news conference Saturday Keating said the United States would be willing to help if that is what China decides to do.

"It is not an area where we would want any tension to arise unnecessarily," he added. "And we would, if they choose to develop [an aircraft carrier program] help them to the degree that they seek and the degree that we're capable, in developing their programs."

Admiral Keating also told reporters he believes he made progress during his talks with Chinese military and civilian leaders Friday toward a better understanding of each country's strategic plans. He said he wants to increase the quality and level of challenge in U.S.-China military exercises, and expand exchanges among lower-ranking troops.

He also repeated comments he made to VOA on Friday, criticizing China's test of an anti-satellite missile in January - a view he also shared with the most senior official he met here, the vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. During that meeting, the two senior officers also discussed the need to avoid any misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to conflict in the Taiwan Straits.

At the news conference, Admiral Keating was also asked about Taiwan's reduction in its defense spending, as a percentage of its economy. He said he is not as concerned with percentages as he is with capabilities, and he believes the past nearly 60 years of stability across the Taiwan Straits is evidence that the island is spending enough.

"To me, the manifest evidence is pretty clear. Do those of use in the military ever think we have enough? Well, we'll take more if we can get it, but the Taiwan military capabilities are significant," he noted. "We emphasize that they remain defensive in nature. Our message is clear to the Taiwanese. And it is my understanding and my position that their defensive capabilities are adequate to task."

Later, a U.S. official traveling with the Admiral told VOA the United States would like Taiwan's legislature to approve some military purchases that have been pending for years. But the official also said there is disagreement over exactly what Taiwan should buy to enhance its defenses.

Admiral Keating, who became the U.S. Pacific commander in March, will continue his five-day visit to China with a trip to Nanjing on Sunday to visit the headquarters of the military district directly across the straits from Taiwan. He said he hopes to visit more Chinese military installations in future trips, including units that handle the country's missile force.