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US Asia Commander says N. Korea, China Chief Concerns

The commander of U.S. forces in Asia said North Korea will likely continue to 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. The commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, spoke with VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin on Thursday.

Admiral Keating has about three months remaining in what will be 2 1/2 years at Pacific Command. But he does not expect the list of concerns to change much during his remaining time.

"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.

The admiral noted that North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles, and that it is working on a long-range missile -- so far without success.

But beyond those capabilities, he said 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 [the] likelihood of eventualities. But we're ready for a broad range of eventualities," he said.

Admiral Keating said American military planners also face uncertainty about China's intentions. The uncertainty is not as extreme, but China's military capability is much greater and growing fast.

When Admiral Keating took charge of Pacific Command, he said he wanted more information from China, so he could better understand its leaders' intentions. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he said the same thing.

"I do, and we do, have a better understanding, but it's not complete. We're encouraged, but not satisfied. 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 it intends to remain so. At the same time, China is increasing its regional military power projection, leading some analysts to worry about a confrontation in the future.

But Admiral Keating is not so worried.

"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. And [then] we're in a position where we don't want to be and we don't need to be," Admiral Keating said.

That concern has been heightened in recent months as China has limited its military exchanges with the United States to protest a U.S. military sale to Taiwan last October.

Still, Admiral Keating has been able to use the new "hotline" from his headquarters in Hawaii to China's military command twice.

Keating said he has "positive" contacts with senior Chinese military officers, but that the contacts are not frequent enough.

The admiral said he hopes that China sticks to its stated desire for a "peaceful rise," and he believes more U.S.-China military exchanges would contribute to that.

"We're cautiously optimistic, but we're not taking anything for granted. We're trying not to take anything for granted. We want to operate in more regimes [i.e., routine exchanges] with the People's Liberation Army and with greater frequency. 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.

The admiral said there may be some progress on that during U.S.-China talks he will attend in Washington next week. But he said progress is more likely at senior-level bi-lateral navy talks that are expected soon.

Keating said China and North Korea are only two of the many issues he would put on the 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 -- not just militaries, but more and more countries, the increasingly complex and interdependent web of economy, environment, energy and the access to the global maritime and air domain, and the importance of that access," he said.

Admiral Keating's departure from Pacific Command in October will end a long military career, which he began as a pilot flying off of aircraft carriers in the 1970s.

"It has been a remarkably enjoyable ride, Al, for 42-some years now. A lot of days have been thrilling. Some of them have had their share of sorrow. But many, many more have been exciting and invigorating. And I would do it again in a New York minute," he said.

Admiral Keating said he does not yet know what he will do in retirement, but he hopes to continue serving his country in some way.