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(LEAD) U.S. says PACOM's name change will not affect commander missions

All Headlines 09:56 June 01, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with additional info throughout)
By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, June 1 (Yonhap) -- The renaming of the U.S. Pacific Command does not alter the missions of any commander under the combatant unit, a U.S. military official said Friday, amid speculation that the name change reflects Washington's resolve to keep an assertive China in check.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced Wednesday that the Hawaii-headquartered command has been renamed the Indo-Pacific Command "in recognition of the increasing connectivity (of) the Indian and Pacific Oceans."

The renaming comes as China has been seen striving to project its maritime power far beyond its borders by building up its navy and constructing artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea capable of hosting military forces.

"The term 'Indo-Pacific' reflects the strategic importance of both the Indian and Pacific Oceans," CDR Dave Benham, director of media operations at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in an email message to Yonhap News Agency.

"The redesignation does not affect the missions, responsibilities or areas of responsibilities of any combatant commander," he added.

Benham was responding to Yonhap's question of whether the renamed command will have a new vision for the U.S. Forces Korea subordinate to it, which has focused on deterring North Korea's aggression rather than undertaking a wider range of missions beyond the Korean Peninsula.

Amid an inter-Korean detente and China's growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, analysts have said the U.S. military would feel the growing need to expand the USFK role to include tasks such as protecting a regional "rule-based" maritime order.

"While competition is not synonymous with conflict, there is an increasing possibility that Korea's strategic environment will be increasingly shaped by the outer circles of contending great power rivalries," Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Yonhap.

"In turn, regional strategic competition may increase operational responsibilities for the future of U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) forces, and diversify its future mission templates," he added.

Based on its growing economic and military might, China has been suspected of seeking to expand its sphere of influence through man-made islands in the strategically vital waterway of the South China Sea -- or farther into the Pacific.

Last month, China's People's Liberation Army Air Force carried out the takeoff and landing of some bombers, such as the nuclear-capable H-6K, on an island in the South China Sea.

Beijing has continued to double down on its territorial claims to the lion's share of the South China Sea despite a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague against the claims.

The United States apparently sees the move as a threat to the global commons, or the freedom of maritime navigation or commerce, which has led it to carry out naval operations to keep the contested waterway "free and open."

Beijing has also been pushing for the "One Belt One Road" initiative, seen as a grand geopolitical strategy to connect China with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Europe and even Africa through "land and maritime silk roads."

During Wednesday's change of command ceremony at the Indo-Pacific Command, the Pentagon chief indicated America's resolve to fend off any threat to the global commons in an apparent allusion to China's maritime ambitions.

"For every state, sovereignty is respected, no matter its size, and it's a region open to investment and free, fair and reciprocal trade not bound by any nation's predatory economics or threat of coercion, for the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads," Mattis said.

"America continues to invest vigorously in Indo-Pacific stability, bolstering the free and open rules-based international order that has enabled this region to grow and to thrive for over 70 years," he added.

The U.S. Pacific Command was first created in 1947. It is known to have some 375,000 personnel under it and boasts high-end weapons systems, such as F-22 radar-evading fighters and strategic bombers, including the B-52 and B-2.

Adm. Philip Davidson recently took helm of the command, replacing Harry Harris, who has been named the U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

This photo taken on Oct. 28, 2017, shows U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaking during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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