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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, July 19, 2001

U.S. won't reduce troops in Asia, Adm. Blair says

Associated Press

TOKYO — The top commander for U.S. forces in Asia said today that U.S. forces in the region are not likely to suffer cutbacks, despite the Pentagon's possible plans to overhaul the military.

"I see an increase in the emphasis on Asia as the region of both potential opportunity and potential threat," said Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

"I look at the fundamental force structure we have here to do our jobs and I think those are going to stay pretty constant," he told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said he wants to shift the military's strategy from that of preparing to be able to fight two major regional wars at once.

Defense department officials have said the changes — the first since the end of the Cold War in 1991 — would require only having enough forces on hand simultaneously to win one regional war and defend against smaller threats.

Rumsfeld told a congressional committee last month that the two-war strategy was outdated and left the United States increasingly vulnerable to such threats as ballistic missiles.

Among the biggest threats to stability in Asia is North Korea, said Blair, who is based in Hawai'i. He said the United States would continue to focus defenses in Asia toward repulsing a possible attack from the reclusive communist nation.

"The North Korean missile program poses a direct threat to both the citizens of South Korea and U.S. forces," said Blair. "North Korea has the capability to fit them with weapons of mass destruction warheads as well as with conventional warheads."

Blair also said the Bush administration would continue to try to reach a missile agreement with Pyongyang.

The United States considers North Korea a state sponsor of international terrorism — a label allowing it to maintain economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Blair stressed that North Korea's missiles, test-fired in 1998, can reach Japan. He expressed hope that Japan will collaborate in building a regional missile defense system.

Asia's regional stability also hinges on China, he said, whose relations with Washington have been tense since a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet this year.

The United States maintains nearly 100,000 troops in Asia, mostly in Japan and South Korea. Around 47,000 of those are in Japan, which has served as a key U.S. military outpost since World War II.