The commander of the United States Navy's largest forward deployed fleet said Monday the U.S. maritime alliance with South Korea has become stronger following North Korea's recent provocations.
"The improvements in (the fleet's) capability have been made even stronger by a deepening of our alliances and partnerships around the region," Vice Admiral Scott Van Buskirk, who visited Hong Kong this week, said in an address to the non-profit
educational institution Asia Society.
"A similar evolution is occurring in our relationship with the Republic of Korea Navy," he said, using the official name of South Korea.
Van Buskirk commands the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the U.S. Navy's permanent forward projection force based in Yokosuka, Japan, with units positioned near South Korea and Japan. It is a component fleet force under the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
In 1994, the Seventh Fleet was assigned the responsibility as Commander, Combined Naval Component Command for the defense of South Korea.
North Korea's two deadly attacks on the South last year -- the March sinking of the South's warship Cheonan and the November shelling of the South's border island of Yeonpyeong -- served as a "stark reminder" that the North Korean regime remains dangerous and unpredictable, Van Buskirk said.
"The net effect was a strengthening of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance, to include a series of exercises to both demonstrate and build our interoperability, particularly in the
area of anti-submarine warfare," he said.
The commander said that a recognition has been growing that the U.S., South Korea and Japan have common maritime interests, and that there was a greater need for trilateral cooperation between the three navies.
He stressed that the U.S.'s commitment in Asia has been steadfast, saying that the Seventh Fleet has increased its capabilities significantly.
"It is often asserted -- quite falsely -- that the U.S. presence in this region is shrinking," the Van Buskirk said.
"But the facts simply do not support that conclusion," he said, adding that "the ships and aircraft that we operate today are vastly more capable than they were just a few years ago."
South Korean and U.S. troops are set to begin a new round of military drills later this month to improve their ability to deter North Korean aggression.
Seoul and Washington have informed Pyongyang of their plan to hold the annual "Key Resolve and Foal Eagle" exercises from Feb. 28 to March 10, the allies' Combined Forces Command (CFC) said last week.
The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, rather than a peace treaty.