Singapore: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has watched sharp ups-and-downs in US-China military relations over the past four years, is hoping to add momentum to a recent improving trend before he leaves office at the end of June.
Gates was meeting one-on-one on Friday in Singapore with his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, on the opening day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the pre-eminent annual Asian security conference where he will deliver a policy speech on Saturday.
In what Gates and others see as an encouraging sign, China for the first time chose to send its defense minister to the conference, now in its 10th year. Guanglie is scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Sunday, one day after Gates departs.
A central theme of Gates` message in Singapore is that Asian nations should not believe that impending US defense budget cuts will lead to a smaller US military presence in Asia. US officials are concerned that some in the region could tilt toward China if they believe they are being abandoned by the US or perceive less-sturdy assurances of American support in the long run.
The main US military presence in Asia is in Japan and South Korea, but Washington also has close military ties to the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore. The Pentagon is in the midst of an internal review of its force alignment in the region, with the outcome expected to call for a wider range of military exchanges, exercises and ship, aircraft and troop rotations in Southeast Asia.
How that is achieved will depend to a large degree on how deeply the Pentagon cuts its budget in coming years.
President Barack Obama on April 13 announced a plan to reduce defense spending by USD 400 billion over the next 12 years, and some in Congress — as well as some independent analysts — are calling for far deeper reductions. With an end in sight for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense savings are central to a broader effort to shrink government deficits.
Gates has made relations with China a priority during his 4 1/2 years as defense secretary, recognising its increasing economic strength and a military modernisation program that is proceeding apace even as the US faces budget constraints.
The US-China relationship is fraught with friction on many fronts: trade and economic policy, regional and global politics, and defense policy. The latest stir is over allegations that computer hackers in China broke into Google`s email system, and that personal Gmail accounts of several hundred people, including senior US government officials, had been exposed.
The Obama administration said on Thursday that the FBI is investigating, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters, "These allegations are very serious." Google said it traced the origin of the attacks to Jinan, China, the home city of a military vocational school whose computers were linked to a more sophisticated attack on Google`s systems 17 months ago.
In early 2010, China froze military-to-military relations with the US in protest of an announced USD 6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the autonomous island that Beijing sees as a renegade province. US law requires weapons support to ensure Taiwan`s self-defense.
In remarks to reporters traveling with him earlier this week, Gates said he doubts China aims to match US military power but thinks it is tailoring its buildup in ways that will extend its influence in Asia.
"The Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience," he said, alluding to the economic burden — ultimately unsustainable — that the Soviets bore in trying to keep up with Washington in a Cold War arms race.
"But I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them a considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence," he said.
He cited as examples anti-ship missiles, cyber weapons and anti-satellite weapons. He did not mention Taiwan by name, but there is a worry in Washington that the Chinese are seeking the means to compel Taiwan to reunite with the mainland — by force if necessary.
Gates denies that the US is trying to contain China. He says the US accepts that Beijing will remain a global power into the foreseeable future. For that reason it is important that the US remain willing to talk directly with Chinese leaders, he said.
"We are not trying to hold China down," Gates said on Thursday. "China has been a great power for thousands of years. It is a global power, and it will be a global power."