Pacific Theater Chief Talks of Regional 'Flashpoints'
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2000 U.S. military presence is vital in the Asian-Pacific region, where "flashpoints" abound, according to the nation's top military officer in the Pacific.
Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair of U.S. Pacific Command briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee and Pentagon reporters here March 7 on regional security. He presented his assessment the day before Defense Secretary William S. Cohen departed on a 10-day trip to the region.
Long-standing tensions threaten serious conflict in Korea, the Taiwan Strait and Kashmir, the theater commander in chief said in his prepared statement to the committee. "Violent separatist movements and ethnic disputes in Burma, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka set up vicious cycles of terrorism and repression within countries and threaten the region with refugee flows, export of terrorism, and crises between neighboring nations.
"Rapid economic development has created huge gaps in the distribution of wealth within many countries in the region," he continued. "Combined with corruption and privilege, this development has caused citizens to challenge the legitimacy of ruling political regimes and has further inflamed violence between ethnic and religious groups.
Speaking with Pentagon reporters following his Senate testimony, Blair praised the 300,000 men and women of his command.
"They're out there day in, day out, doing the hard jobs, making everybody proud of their -- of a country that can produce folks like that, whether they're soldiers on the DMZ in Korea or they're airmen in Diego Garcia fixing airplanes, or all of the other service people," he said. "We need to take care of them -- we who lead them, those of you who write about them, and members of Congress, who I talked to this morning, who also support them -- and they'll take care of us."
The admiral detailed his perspectives on some of the region's problems.
"North Korean armed forces have just finished the heaviest winter training cycle that we have seen in recent years, showing that they certainly, in the midst of this terrible economic and agricultural situation, are devoting resources to a military capability," said the admiral, who assumed command about a year ago.
Despite recent drought and famine, North Korea seems "to have stabilized economically at what we would consider an impossibly low level of production and consumption," Blair said. "They continue to divert a disproportionate part of that small national wealth to military purposes and are able to wring a formidable military capability out of a busted economy because that's in the interest of the ruling family there and they maintain it with authoritarian means."
The United States, Japan and South Korea are making diplomatic efforts to establish ties with North Korea. America's military presence on the Korean Peninsula, Blair said, "provides a strong deterrence and serves as a foundation for the recent diplomatic moves which have made some progress in key areas."
U.S. defense officials are also closely watching developments in South Asia. In the past year, India and Pakistan have fought a war in the Siachen Glacier, Blair said. "And tensions remain high between those two countries, both of which now have nuclear weapons." He visited India in January and said he's optimistic about establishing good working relations with India.
Indonesia has also gone through tremendous political, economic and military changes in the past year. When East Timor voted in August for independence, he said, Indonesia "behaved very, very badly, permitting, if not abetting, repression and brutality against the citizens of East Timor." The United States cut off military ties with Indonesia, but hopes to resume relations soon, he added. "But it will have to be done under the right conditions, when the time is appropriate."
At its height, about 200 U.S. troops supported an Australian-led international peacekeeping mission in East Timor. Another 200 U.S. troops provided support in Darwin, Australia. The United States also diverted Navy ships visiting in the area to provide Marine helicopters and other support ashore.
"I think this is a new pattern for cooperation that the United States participates in Asia and perhaps in the world. For my money, it's a very positive one," Blair said. "It's sort of a third gear between being in charge and running the whole thing and not participating at all."
The Philippines is now leading the U.N. mission in East Timor. About two dozen U.S. staff officers are in Dili, East Timor, supporting the U.N. staff there, Blair said. They're also coordinating periodic U.S. deployments of construction engineers, Navy Seabees, medical units, some more transportation units, other assessment and support functions.
Blair said he recently completed his first trip to the Republic of China since becoming theater commander. He said Taiwan took center stage during his talks with Chinese officials during his visit.
"I urged restraint and moderation on the Chinese leaders with whom I talked," the admiral said. Both sides agree a peaceful resolution to the tension over Taiwan is in everyone's best interests, he added.
"They've got people working on their military preparations, but I think their overall thrust is toward a peaceful resolution," he said. "They think force is an ultimate weapon in their tool kit, but I don't see near-term sorts of preparations to use it."
Blair noted the deployment patterns of China, Taiwan and the United States are fairly normal at the moment. "There are some small variations, but none of us is preparing for major military moves there, and that's good," he said.
As to a Chinese move on the offshore island, Blair's assessment was simple: "Should China undertake military action to try to invade Taiwan, they would not be successful in taking it and holding it."
The difficulty of mounting an invasion and Taiwan's strong military posture underlie China's move toward a peaceful resolution rather than the use of military force, he said. Seventy to 100 miles of open water lie between China and Taiwan, Blair noted, and Taiwan has built up its defenses over the years.
China's forces modernized at what the admiral described as a "measured pace." "They're capable of doing a lot of damage to Taiwan with the several hundred missiles that they have, with the navy and the air force that they have," he said.
An invasion would cause economic hardship for Taiwan, he said, but also for China in terms of international reactions -- and at a time when China's professed top priorities are economic and technological reform and taking care of its people. Chinese leaders know a strike on Taiwan would destroy all the progress they've made in joining the world economy, he added, and yet they continue strengthening their forces in the region.
"The Chinese are adding about 50 missiles every year to their force that can target Taiwan, he said. They recently took delivery of their first destroyers armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, he noted.
Overall, Blair pointed out, the United States is working in the Asian-Pacific region to take "strong bilateral relationships and knit them together into more regional arrangements to support common objectives."
Pacific Command is doing "a lot of the military groundwork that lies under that sort of an arrangement," he said. "It can be a foundation for a greater peaceful development in that part of the world, and that's in this country's interest, and that's in the interest of the countries that are there."