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Although U.S. defense spending still far exceeds China‘s, U.S. forces are spread much further afield. Budget pressures have added to doubt about the Obama administration’s ability to follow through on its rebalance of forces as it winds down military involvement in the Middle East, and the size of the U.S. Navy as it looks to deploy more ships to the Pacific.

Asked about tensions between U.S. ally Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, Locklear said the potential for miscalculation “could be high and very dangerous” if the Asian nations don’t manage their differences, but he didn’t think a confrontation was likely in the near term.

The U.S. has nearly 50,000 troops based in Japan and its treaty obligations mean it could be drawn into any conflict over the Japanese-administered islands that are also claimed by China.