The incoming commander of the US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, signaled that he plans an active role for his US forces in preventing a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and said he would keep a close eye on developments in the Taiwan Strait, especially on China's growing military strength, when he assumes command.
Keating, who was nominated last month by US President George W. Bush to replace Admiral William Fallon, made his comments on Thursday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is expected to win easy confirmation by the committee and the full Senate.
In an answer to questions posed by the committee in advance of the hearing, Keating said one of his top priorities when he takes up the position will be "influencing cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan."
"I will remain fully committed to the US obligation to provide Taiwan with the necessary capabilities for its defense. I would continue to focus on efforts to modernize Taiwan's defense capability and improve the joint operating capacity of the Taiwan armed forces," he said.
Asked about the relationship between Taiwan's military strength and regional security, Keating said the Pacific forces "should focus on Taiwan's capability to defend itself and avoid characterizing the Taiwan military's modernization as offensive. A Taiwan that can defend itself enhances regional security."
Like Fallon, who testified before Congress the day before, Keating told the committee he believed that the situation in the strait is stable. But he assured the committee that the US Pacific forces would be more than capable of containing China if the situation changed.
"Sustaining the calm that appears to pervade today across the straits [sic] of Taiwan will be a principle goal of ours at the Pacific Command. I know you're very familiar with the Taiwan Relations Act. We understand that act," Keating told Senator John Warner, the committee's ranking Republican, in response to his question.
The act commits the US to maintain a ready capability to deal with any hostile Chinese action in the strait, as well as supplying Taiwan with defensive weapons.
"In dealing with the People's Republic of China and with the government of Taiwan, we would emphasize that China has to be very careful in the development of offensive weapons. We want to sustain Taiwan's notion of a defensive front from their military capabilities," he said.
"We would encourage increased dialogue between those two countries on an informal basis," Keating said. "We will do our best to make sure that both sides are aware of our close observation of developments. And we would do our best to sustain the harmony that does appear to be the situation" in the strait now, he said.
In this, he emphasized the need for increased US-China military-to-military interactions and exercises to demonstrate US military prowess to the Chinese as a deterrent.
"If we ensure they are aware of our capabilities and our intent, I think we will go a long way to diffusing potential strife across the straits [sic] of Taiwan," he said.
In his answers to questions about cross-strait relations posed by the committee before his appearance, Keating said he was "mindful miscalculation is possible. If confirmed, I will remain particularly attentive to any military quantitative and qualitative gap between China and Taiwan."
Keating also downplayed the advances China has made in acquir-ing advanced submarines, which could be used to prevent the US from effectively intervening against any Chinese attack on Taiwan.
In a brief interview with the Taipei Times after his appearance, Keating first expressed the hope that any attack would not occur.
"Should it become necessary for us to put our forces [in harm's way], the development of Chinese submarines are a concern to us, but it is hardly an insurmountable concern," he said.
In response to a question at his hearing, Keating dismissed reports of recent gains in Chinese submarine development.
"If the reports are fairly accurate, they are well behind us technologically. We enjoy significant advantages across the spectrum of defensive and offensive systems, in particular undersea warfare," he said. "I can assure you that we're not unfamiliar with the challenges, and we have significant advantage now and we're not going to yield those advantages."