WASHINGTON, July 22, 2009 – The top Pentagon policy official’s recent visit to Beijing could be a sign of China’s willingness to resume its military-to-military dialog with the United States, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific said.

Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating pointed to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy’s two days of meetings with Chinese defense officials last month as an optimistic sign for U.S.-Sino relations.

“We hope this is a clear signal on the part of the Chinese of their intention to resume pure military-to-military dialog,” Keating told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing today.

Keating and his staff had been making headway in forging closer ties, but China brought the dialog to an abrupt halt after the United States announced arms sales to Taiwan in October.

“We would rather have more frequent dialog,” Keating said today. “More importantly, we would rather have more robust dialog – something substantive. There is plenty of substance to discuss right now. It is not going on.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Keating to participate in bilateral talks with the Chinese next week. “I think it’s important to have Pacific Command in the room,” he said.

While he has no plans to visit China during the next three months, Keating said, he expressed hope that Navy Adm. Robert Willard, if confirmed by the Senate as his successor at Pacom, will do so early in 2010 to help to rekindle the military-to-military dialog.

Turning the discussion to other areas of the region, Keating expressed concern about potential military ties between North Korea and Burma, particularly arms shipments in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718. Clinton shared that sentiment in Bangkok yesterday, telling reporters the United States recognizes the impact of such a relationship. “It would be destabilizing for the region,” she said. “It would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors.”

Pacom has the capability of keeping “close track of any sort of vessel that might be violating UNSCR 1718,” Keating said today. He noted that air and surface traffic flows between North Korea and several countries, including Burma. “And we watch carefully,” he said.

Keating expressed hope that international pressure and diplomacy will pay off and North Korea will return to the Six-Party Talks aimed at a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Asked about security plans in the event of a change in leadership in North Korea, he emphasized that the departure of Kim Jong Il does not necessarily mean a national security crisis. “I don’t have any indications that any change in Jim Jong Il’s status means a change in military posture,” he said.

But Pacom is watching the situation closely, he said, and ensuring it’s prepared to respond, if required.

“We have a number of options that we at Pacific Command are studying in close coordination with the Department of State, Department of Defense, intelligence agencies and our partners and allies in the region,” he said.

Keating praised Pacom’s new strategy, with its three pillars of partnership, readiness and presence, for promoting stability and cooperation in Asia and the Pacific. As he prepares to pass the command’s reins to his successor, he said, he’s optimistic that daily execution of the new strategy will have a broad and lasting impact.

Asked what he sees as the next significant challenge in the region, Keating said he hopes the future security climate will be defined by what doesn’t happen.

“I hope it’s not a headline-grabbing violent extremist attack, a la Indonesia recently,” he said, referring to last week’s bombings in Jakarta.

“I am confident it won’t be the outbreak of nation-on-nation military activity,” he continued. “I hope that it’s not some campaign to deny free access to the maritime or air domain. So it’s a series of things that I hope don’t happen.”

Keating reflected on Pacom’s role in the region and the stability it has helped maintain during the past 60 years. “We’re a force present, a force engaged, a force ready, a force committed to peace and stability throughout the region,” he said.

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