WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will kick off a whirlwind trip this weekend that will begin with a change of command ceremony at U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, followed by visits to South Korea, Japan and a NATO defense ministers conference in Slovakia.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell announced the around-the-world trip during today’s Pentagon media briefing.

Gates is slated to preside at the Oct. 19 Pacom change of command ceremony at Camp H.M. Smith in Honolulu, where Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating will pass the helm of the oldest and largest U.S. combatant command to Navy Adm. Robert Willard.

The secretary will pay tribute to Keating, who will retire with more than 40 years of military service, as well as Pacom’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, Morrell said.

Willard leaves his post as commander of Pacific Fleet to become the new Pacom commander. Like Keating, he is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate with extensive experience in the Pacific region.

Following the ceremony, Gates will travel to Tokyo for his first visit with the newly elected government of the Democratic Party of Japan. Gates is slated to discuss the security of the region and the ongoing transformation of the U.S.-Japan alliance during meetings with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, as well as the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, Morrell said.

He called the visit “an opportunity to reiterate our strong commitment to this alliance, and also to the agreements that have been reached between our two governments — not political parties, but between our two governments.”

Issues likely to arise at the meeting include the Japanese navy’s at-sea refueling mission for U.S. ships with cargo for the coalition mission in Afghanistan, and
Japan’s agreement to underwrite part of the cost of moving U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam.

“Whether it be the Futenma replacement facility or the Guam international agreement, we obviously want to work with the new government to make sure they have all the information they need to better understand what has been agreed to by previous governments,” Morrell told reporters.

These agreements, although complicated, are “beneficial to both of our countries and to our long-term relationship and to the security situation in the region,” he said. “So we are obviously committed to carrying them out as agreed upon, but are working with the Japanese government right now to help them get as much information as they need to better understand them.”

From Tokyo, the secretary will travel to Seoul to co-chair the 41st annual Security Consultative Meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae Young.

Kim, who previously served as South Korea’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assumed his new post in September, emphasizing the importance of changes and reform to cope with the tension on the Korean peninsula.

Gates will reinforce U.S. commitment to the alliance and South Korea’s defense in the wake of North Korea’s recent missile launches, Morrell said.

“We will obviously work with them, as we always do, to try to secure their defense and to try to deal with the threat that exists to the north of them,” Morrell said in response to a reporter’s question. “Obviously, missile launches of that nature are unhelpful and potentially destabilizing, and are frowned upon by us and others in the region.”

Gates will conclude his trip by leaving the Pacific theater and traveling to meet with his fellow NATO defense ministers in Bratislava, Slovakia. The session is expected to focus primarily on NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan, Morrell said.

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