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Gates tries to calm Asian allies

Amid concern that the U.S. is neglecting the region, he tells defense ministers it `is more engaged than ever.'

June 02, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought today to reassure Asian allies that the Bush administration had not become distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, telling a gathering of defense ministers that the U.S. was still committed to Asia's stability for the long term.

In his first major address on Asian defense issues since becoming Pentagon chief, Gates emphasized that the U.S. military remained heavily involved in a wide range of missions throughout the region, including maritime interdiction, counter-proliferation and humanitarian efforts. He pledged that the U.S. would continue to live up to its commitments in Asia, regardless of the course of conflicts in the Middle East.

"Some people have suggested that the United States may be neglecting Asia, because we have been too focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots," Gates told an annual gathering of Asian defense officials. "In reality, far from neglecting Asia, the U.S. is more engaged than ever before."

Gates' speech, however, was as notable for what was not included as for what was. In the past, Gates' predecessor Donald H. Rumsfeld had used this annual gathering to berate China over its failure to explain the reasons behind its military buildup.

A particularly tendentious 2005 address by Rumsfeld led to an extraordinary exchange with a mid-level Chinese official in the audience, a public spat that U.S. officials clearly relished as a way to turn up the heat on Beijing.

But officials traveling with Gates said he intentionally shied away from focusing on the Chinese military buildup. They noted that they had decided to let the recently released Pentagon report evaluating the buildup "speak for itself."

"We've said what we can say in the China military power report," one senior Defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal Pentagon deliberations. "We don't see any reason in getting bogged down in any discussion about that report in this meeting."

In his formal remarks, Gates mentioned China only in passing at the end of his address, where he reiterated U.S. concerns about the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military intentions. But he also said the level of bilateral military-to-military contacts was increasing, and praised the two countries' growing economic relationship.

"I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship," he said.

Pentagon officials appear to have made a calculated shift in their rhetoric on China, in part because of recent signs that Beijing has become more forthcoming in explaining its military buildup.

A December "white paper" issued by Beijing was deemed a "marked improvement" by Pentagon officials, who said it gave far more detail about the nation's military strategy and budgeting than previous documents.

The Defense official also noted that for the first time, China agreed to send a high-ranking military official to this Singapore gathering, Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of staff and intelligence chief.

Previously, only mid-level Chinese diplomats had attended the Singapore forum, formally called the Shangri-La Dialogue and organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Despite the shift in rhetoric, Gates said he had concerns regarding China's military modernization, warning that "distrust and secrecy can lead to miscalculation and unnecessary confrontation."

Officials traveling with Gates said they were particularly concerned about recent upgrades in long-range nuclear missiles and had pressed Beijing to engage in a bilateral dialogue to more fully explain its actions.

In addition, the senior Defense official said Beijing continued to say little about a January missile test in which it shot down one of its own satellites. The recent Pentagon report said the test appeared to be part of a broad strategy aimed at disabling enemy satellites.

"Let's just say that the dialogue we have had with them on the antisatellite test has been pretty small beer," the official said. "We really have not received any real reasonable and logical explanation as to what has transpired."

Gates was challenged only once by a Chinese official, during a question session following his speech. Senior Col. Yao Yunzhu, an official at the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science, raised concerns that the bilateral relationship was coming to resemble U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War.

Gates disagreed, but said one of the salutary effects of the decades-long arms control talks with the Soviet Union was that both sides got to know each other, which prevented misunderstanding. Gates said he hoped China and the U.S. could begin a similar relationship.

The senior Defense official said the decision to play down China and instead focus on spelling out U.S. commitments to an audience of Asian dignitaries was driven by growing sentiment that the administration is downgrading its role in Asia.

"This has been a low-running theme among many of the folks in the region," said the Defense official. "[Our] frustration is ... that we're doing a lot of things in Asia, very proactive things ... [but] those good deeds basically go unnoticed, unreported and unrecognized."

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