WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2009 – The Asia-Pacific region will become even more important to U.S. defense and economic interests in the future, the top commander in the region said today.

And the United States has become an indispensible partner in the region on both accounts, said Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command.

Keating spoke here today at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy “think tank,” offering up what he called a “retrospective” look at U.S. progress in the region.

The career sailor relinquishes his command next month and will retire after 42 years of service, most spent serving within the command.

“On a daily basis I’m convinced that we are in better shape in the Asia-Pacific than we were 25 years ago,” Keating said of the U.S. military’s oldest and largest combatant command.

The command’s geographic responsibility covers about half the Earth’s surface, stretching from the waters off the west coast of the United States to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole.

Thirty-six nations make up the Asia-Pacific region, and it is home to more than half of the world’s population.

Keating said that the United States trades $1 trillion annually with countries in Asia-Pacific, and 20 million containers of goods course the Indian or Pacific oceans annually. Fifteen of the 20 largest ports are in the region, with nine in China alone.

On the military front, five of the largest armies in the world are in the region, and the United States has five standing treaties there with Japan, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea.

As China continues to build its military capabilities in the region, Keating said he is not worried.

“Some folks might think that we at U.S. Pacific Command might spend every waking moment worrying … concerned about the People’s Republic of China. We don’t,” Keating said. “We’re watching them. We’re paying close attention. But I don’t view China as a threat. We don’t want them to view us as a threat.”

Some of the asymmetric capabilities the country is developing are of interest to the United States, he said, such as anti-satellite, cyber and submarine warfare efforts.

“They’re building some pretty good capability,” he said. “We’re watching it.”

But, Keating said the United States has recently resumed military-to-military dialogue with China. Those efforts were suspended by China in 2008 after the United States announced an arms sale package with Taiwan.

Officials from both countries now have restored those talks, and about three weeks ago the dialogue were resumed. Keating said he hopes to continue the dialogue and has encouraged the Chinese to participate in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and search and rescue exercises, hoping to grow the relationship from there.

Keating said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the way ahead with China and has invited them to observe recent military exercises in the region.

“We want to draw the Chinese out,” Keating said. “We want to ask them to manifest their intention for peaceful rise and harmonious integration by exercising, not just with the United States of America, but with as many nations as they … we could agree could participate.”

Keating said the United States still seeks North Korea’s return to the Six-Party talks, with the overarching goal being a “certifiable, denuclearized peninsula.”

“We are a ways from the Six-Party talks and we at U.S. Pacific Command remain firmly in support of the State Department efforts …,” Keating said.

More than 28,000 troops are stationed in South Korea. Keating said commanders are working to make the tours there longer so troops can bring their families. They want to continue building better housing and schools. In the past two decades, the tours typically have been unaccompanied for one year.

Keating called Japan a “powerful ally” and the United States has about 50,000 troops stationed there. As the country’s newly elected government transitions into power, Keating said he anticipates no significant change to the U.S.-Japan military relationship.

Keating will travel to Japan next week, he said. He has already had conversations with senior defense staff there about the transition.

Keating said he recently visited India, home of the world’s largest democracy. He said officials there have committed to increasing the military relationship between the country and the United States, as well as increasing the number of joint training exercises and personnel exchanges.

“I’m convinced India is and will remain a very important partner of ours in a critical part of the world for all of us,” Keating said.

Keating said that he spends the majority of his time in command traveling the diverse region and support continues to grow, he said.

“The support worldwide has never been better,” Keating said. “Our role is instrumental in continuing to assure peace to maintain stability so as to enhance economic prosperity all throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”

The key to this support is maintaining the U.S. presence there, he said. About 325,000 servicemembers and civilians are assigned to the command, about one-fifth of total U.S. military strength.

“Nothing beats American forces being in a foreign country working with the men and women of that country, developing an appreciation for the culture, emphasizing at the end of the day the partnership … in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

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