The new commander of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans says North Korea must be watched very closely and that China's growing military capabilities are also causing concern in the region. Admiral Robert Willard spoke to reporters in Seoul Wednesday, for the first time since he took command.
Admiral Willard says the United States and other nations must continue to deal with North Korea's "unpredictability," and work through military deterrence and diplomatic pressure to convince the country's leaders to abandon their nuclear program.
"A nuclear-armed North Korea and a North Korea that chooses to provoke and a North Korea that may be on the brink of succession, all those things make North Korea certainly worthy of our attention now," he said. "So, North Korea needs to be watched very closely."
Admiral Willard is in Seoul for annual military talks, which move to the ministerial level now with the arrival of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The secretary met with U.S. and South Korean troops, shortly after arriving Wednesday afternoon, and also stressed the need to pay attention to North Korea's growing nuclear and missile capabilities, even as he says its large ground force is becoming less capable.
In the conversation with reporters, Admiral Willard also expressed concern about China's fast-growing military capability.
"In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year," he said. "They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they've developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on."
Admiral Willard says U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific are looking for opportunities to engage in standard communications with Chinese Navy ships, following protocols recently developed by the two countries to prevent incidents at sea. The admiral says becoming accustomed to such contacts will be useful if there are future hostile incidents at sea, as happened earlier this year.
Admiral Willard says the United States will continue to routinely operate civilian and military ships in China's off-shore economic zone, but will not specifically try to challenge the country's assertion of sovereignty in the zone. He says China's interpretation of its rights under international law is different from the view of the United States and many other countries.
Both Admiral Willard and Secretary Gates, to better understand its intentions and avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict.
In answer to a reporter's question, the admiral also called India, "a vital strategic partner to the United States," and said it can play a leading role in maintaining peace in South Asia, which he called "a challenging region."
The former top Navy fighter pilot, who now commands all U.S. forces in the region, has been the U.S. Navy's Pacific commander for the past two years. He has also commanded the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific and served as an adviser and pilot for the well known movie "Top Gun" in 1986.