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Gates Heads to Asia to Bolster U.S. Alliances

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

EN ROUTE TO TOKYO, Oct. 19, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is on his way to Japan, where he will discuss a broad range of defense issues as the first Cabinet-level U.S. official to visit the new Japanese Democratic Party government since it took office last month.

Gates presided earlier today at the change-of-command ceremony at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu and is traveling on to Tokyo, then Seoul, South Korea, to meet with two of the strongest U.S. allies in the region.

“Our alliances are in, we think, great shape -- not just in the military side, but politically, economically and in every other way,” a senior defense official traveling with Gates told reporters. “We intend to reinforce all that, and we intend to make sure that America's rock-solid, steadfast commitment to the security of our allies is plainly evident through these visits.”

Discussions during both visits will focus on major transformations under way to keep the alliances “forward-looking” so they are prepared to deal with challenges, not only on the Korean peninsula, but also in the wider Asia-Pacific region and globally.

The visits will “build on the time-tested strength of these alliance relationships” in the lead-up to two historic milestones in 2010. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of mutual cooperation and security with Japan.

In Tokyo, Gates’ meetings with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada will focus on regional security and the ongoing transformation of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said at last week’s Pentagon briefing.

The talks, the senior official told reporters, will stress “the importance of continuity and realignment efforts while conveying our views on Japan's role in the bilateral alliance and in the international community.”

Issues likely to arise include the Japanese navy's at-sea refueling mission for U.S. and British ships with cargo for the coalition mission in Afghanistan, and Kitazawa’s interest in reviewing existing security accords between the two countries. Those agreements involve the 48,000 U.S. troops in Japan, as well as the planned movement of about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, which Japan had previously agreed to help underwrite.

Gates will emphasize the need to keep previously agreed-to arrangements, the result of 15 years of negotiation and review, in place. These agreements are "beneficial to both of our countries and to our long-term relationship and to the security situation in the region," Morrell told reporters.

The secretary’s talks in Tokyo will set the stage for President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit in mid-November.

In Seoul, Gates will co-chair the 41st annual Security Consultative Meeting with Minister of National Defense Kim Tae Young. The meeting, the first since the U.S.-South Korean presidential summit in mid-June, “will be an opportunity to strengthen the defense relationship in keeping with the joint vision statement promulgated by the U.S. and the Republic of Korea presidents,” the official said.

North Korea’s nuclear, missile and proliferation threat is expected to be a major topic as the defense leaders explore ways to work together cooperatively and with solidarity to confront it.

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.

The talks also will address progress toward South Korea’s assumption of wartime operational control of its forces by April 2012. “We have absolutely no worries that the military conditions and the military capabilities will be there, to enable ‘opcon’ transfer in 2012,” the official said.

The transfer won’t reduce U.S. obligations as an ally, he emphasized, noting that all other aspects of the alliance, including extended deterrence, will remain in full effect after it occurs.

“All we are doing is recognizing the tremendous development within the Republic of Korea's military structure and military capabilities to transfer the command decisions for defense of the Republic of Korea to the Republic of Korea,” he said.

“We will maintain American forces on the peninsula. We will have a specific command on the American side that's dedicated to supporting the Republic of Korea,” he said. “But we think it's a natural evolution to the alliance that it's time now -- 60 years after the start of the Korean War on June 23, 1950 -- that we have the Koreans in command.”

Gates is traveling to Asia after presiding at a change-of-command ceremony at U.S. Pacific Command. Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating passed command to Navy Adm. Robert Willard.

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Biographies:
Robert M. Gates

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Special Report: Travels With Gates

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