WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The United States' top military officer in the Pacific said Wednesday he doesn't expect major changes to his country's defense relationship with Japan despite the election of a new government that has vowed to reevaluate its ties with Washington.
Admiral Timothy Keating also said the U.S. had resumed talks with China's military for the first time in 10 months, while noting that Washington is concerned about some of the weapons systems Beijing is developing.
"I don't think there will be any significant reworking" of the defense partnership with Japan, Keating told The Associated Press during a visit to New Zealand. He said he was "very confident" that U.S. force levels in Japan would remain near their current numbers.
The U.S. stations some 50,000 troops in Japan under a post-World War II mutual security treaty. The U.S. 7th fleet is based in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo, and the USS George Washington aircraft carrier has its home port there — the only American aircraft carrier with a home port outside of the United States.
Japanese voters flocked to the polls last weekend to elect the opposition Democratic Party of Japan — which included in its campaign a pledge to seek a more equal relationship with the U.S. on issues such as defense.
But Keating said he did not see big changes in the two allies' military relationship.
"We will enjoy free and unfettered access to Japanese ports — we have a large battle group stationed close to Japan, including a nuclear powered aircraft carrier," Keating said.
Keating also confirmed that top-level talks between the U.S. and China's military started up over the weekend for the "first time since October 2008 we have been able to engage in official military-to-military dialogue with China."
He said the talks were a "positive signal that China is willing to engage" and would be instrumental in understanding "where they intend to go with their weapons systems and how we can avoid them becoming a threat."
He said some of those weapons and military capabilities "don't appear to us to support their notion of peaceful rise and harmonious integration, so we will watch carefully with many others to see how that development unfolds."
"To see what they do with those capabilities and that capacity — we'll watch it very carefully," he said.
Asked if he was referring to China's ballistic missile and submarine fleet programs, Keating said, "those and others. I can't get into specific intelligence."
"They're not a threat to us today ... and I don't think China wants to threaten anyone," he said. "We look at it (resumed dialogue) as an important step."