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American Forces Press Service

Commander Reaffirms U.S. Commitment to Pacific Region

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii, Sept. 22, 2007 – Six months into the job as commander of the largest U.S. combatant command, Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating still pinches himself each morning when he arrives to work and takes in the views of Pearl Harbor from his mountaintop headquarters.

Twenty-two years ago, when he “carried bags” as the aide to Adm. William J. Crowe, Keating never imagined that he might follow in Crowe’s footsteps to take the helm of U.S. Pacific Command.

“Not in a million years did I dream I would get this job,” Keating said. “It’s a dream job. I’ve got the best job in the Department of Defense.”

Although serving as Crowe’s flag lieutenant gave him wide exposure to the Asia-Pacific region, Keating said much has changed since 1985 -- mostly for the better. More people are living free in democratic countries. U.S. trade with the region is up six fold. Economies in the region are improving, some dramatically. Education opportunities have improved. Health care and dental care are more available, and the standard of living “tends to be on a positive slope,” Keating said.

After visiting nearly half of the 43 countries in his area of responsibility since taking command in March, Keating said he’s “heartened by what I have seen.”

“I’m trying not to be a cheerleader, but we are on solid ground,” he said. “More people want to be with us than wanted to be with us when I was here in the mid-80s.” He cited examples almost inconceivable two decades ago, including Cambodia’s and Mongolia’s desire to partner with the United States while improving their citizens’ quality of life and protecting them from terrorists.

While encouraged by these successes, Keating said he never loses sight of concerns that threaten stability in the region. Terrorist activity in the Philippines and Indonesia, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and China’s military buildup and lack of transparency all loom large. Threats range from terrorist groups to piracy to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technology.

“So while I am encouraged and remain optimistic, I am also aware that there is important and good work to be done,” Keating said.

He called partners and allies critical in standing up to these threats and maintaining regional stability. So since arriving at PACOM, Keating has visited much of the region -- which covers 51 percent of the earth’s surface -- to cement existing relationships and build new ones.

“It’s a big theater, not just geographically, but in terms of ideas, in terms of challenges, in terms of opportunity,” he said in July during an address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “And you’ve got to get out there, and you’ve got to get amongst them.”

Just returned yesterday after a five-day swing to Tonga, Timor-Leste and Australia, Keating got a renewed sense of the striking differences among Pacific nations and the different challenges they face.

But despite all that sets the countries he visited apart, Keating said he was encouraged by their common goals of peace and stability for their people and ways they’re actively working to secure or maintain these ideals.

Tonga, a 171-island archipelago south of Western Samoa, is better known for its prowess on the rugby field than on the world stage, yet it deployed 55 of its 450-member Tonga Defense Service to Iraq last week to support Multinational Fore Iraq. The deployment is Tonga’s second to Iraq, and the country has committed to sending a third contingent.

Keating said he was struck by Tonga’s immense pride in its contribution, which he called significant in light of the country’s total military size and population. “Size is not as important as commitment,” he said during a Sept. 17 retreat ceremony at Tonga’s Togalevu Naval Base. “And the commitment seen in this country is huge.”

Brig. Gen. Tau’aika “Dave” Uta’atu, Tonga’s chief of defense, told Keating his country wants to make a difference in fighting terrorism. “It is not just a coalition of the willing, it is a coalition of the committed,” Keating reflected. “And by God, they are committed.”

Stopping next in Timor-Leste, a restive island nation at the southernmost tip of the Indonesian archipelago, Keating saw a far different situation.

Since breaking free of a brutal 24-year Indonesian rule in 1999 and declaring statehood three years later, Timor-Leste’s leaders have struggled to build a new democratic government. It’s been a big challenge in the face of weak institutions, political infighting, poor education, extreme poverty and violence.

As Keating praised strides the country’s leaders have made and promised U.S. support to help them, he said he was awed by their commitment to a free, democratic country and willingness to do what’s necessary to secure its future.

“We met guys who fought for their nation’s independence,” he said. “They have a president who’s a Nobel laureate. They have a prime minister who was imprisoned for seven years. Their chief of staff has been fighting in the hills for over a decade. And they’re still fighting.”

Keating conceded that the Timorese have giant challenges to overcome. He termed the country’s challenges: “much on their plate over which to say grace.”

“You look them in the eyes and say, ‘You understand the price to be paid for freedom and democracy,” Keating said. “And as you do that, you are talking to guys who are dedicating their lives to making a difference in a new nation.”

Traveling south from Timor-Leste to Australia, Keating met with Australian government and military leaders to explore ways to enhance their already-rock-solid military partnership.

As they talked about ways to collaborate more closely, particularly in fighting terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Keating said even he was surprised by the strength of the U.S.-Australia relationship.

“It’s hard for me to overstate the depth and breadth of the relationship we enjoy together,” Keating said he told Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Australia’s defense chief. “It was a spectacular visit.”

This week’s visits reinforced Keating’s belief in what he calls “the power of the Pacific.”

Using the metaphor of a tapestry, he said every Asia-Pacific nation, regardless of its size or impact beyond its own borders, is an important part of the region’s overall fabric. “I am continually impressed by the fabric and how much it is all interlocking, interwoven and linked,” he said.

This bond, along with positive trends taking place in the region, has created more opportunities for military-to-military cooperation and collaboration, Keating said. “They’re significant,” he said. “And they simply didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

He pointed to exercise Malabar, which wrapped up Sept. 9, as an example of that enhanced cooperation. More than 20,000 servicemembers from the United States, India, Japan, Singapore and Australia exercised their ability to respond together to provide anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy, humanitarian and combat support.

“We had two U.S. carriers, an Indian carrier, and Japanese, Singaporean and Australian forces in the Bay of Bengal, all talking together, all working together,” Keating said.

Just as significant, he said, are humanitarian efforts conducted by PACOM. USS Peleliu, for example, completed its four-month Pacific Partnership 2007 earlier this month after providing medical, dental and engineering support to the Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands.

Keating called these exercises, whether carried out by full carrier strike groups or small military training teams, a big part of PACOM’s effort to build relationships, strengthen partnerships and express support to the region.

“We have so many capabilities in the Department of Defense and Pacific Command, and we have to pull out the stops to ensure our friends in the area know they can count on us anytime,” he said. “That’s our main message: ‘We understand your challenges. We want you to believe and feel viscerally our commitment to support you.’”

Delivering that message throughout the region requires “constant, unrelenting work,” not just by the 300,000 PACOM servicemembers and civilian employees supporting the command’s mission throughout the theater, Keating said.

Just as important, he said, is the support of other U.S. agencies and regional governments, all working together toward a common goal. “It takes the entire spectrum,” Keating said. “This is the furthest thing in the world from a one-man show.”

As he travels through the region, Keating delivers personally the message that this full spectrum of support stands solidly alongside the United States’ friends in Asia and the Pacific. “I am going around and looking them in the eye and saying, ‘We are here. We are not going away,’” he said.

“We have been here since World War II and before, and we are resolutely, irrevocably committed to freedom, stability and prosperity in the Pacific Command area of responsibility.”

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