Gates Offers to Work With China’s Military
SINGAPORE, Saturday, June 2 — Nearly two years to the day after his predecessor bluntly criticized China’s rapid military buildup, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates struck a conciliatory tone toward Beijing on Saturday, saying the United States and China had the opportunity to “build trust over time.”
During a speech delivered from the same podium where Donald H. Rumsfeld said in 2005 that China’s growing arsenal of ships, missiles and submarines threatened Asia’s security balance, Mr. Gates steered away from a direct challenge to China about its military modernization and said he was hopeful about future dealings between the countries.
“I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship,” Mr. Gates said at an annual gathering here of defense ministers from the Pacific region.
Mr. Gates briefly raised concerns that China’s actual defense spending appeared to far outpace its publicly stated military budget. But the speech and comments by Pentagon officials in Singapore make it clear that the Pentagon — which has long taken a hawkish view toward China’s intentions — is hoping to smooth the relationship between the powers.
The Bush administration has been trying in recent months to prevent Congress from imposing tough trade restrictions on China. At the same time, the White House has stepped up economic pressure on Beijing, announcing a policy that could lead to steep tariffs on some goods and its intention to bring China before the World Trade Organization over piracy concerns and China’s subsidies of its export industries.
The tone of Mr. Gates’s speech, which focused on America’s enduring commitment to its Asian allies, is yet another example of what seems a studied attempt by Mr. Gates to present himself in sharp contrast to Mr. Rumsfeld, whose trips abroad often provoked controversy and criticism from America’s allies.
At a February conference in Munich, Mr. Gates took a jab at Mr. Rumsfeld’s famous distinction between “old” and “new” Europe, saying that such characterizations “belong in the past.”
On Saturday, he also made it clear he believed that the best way to improve America’s relations with China was for the two powers to have a constant dialogue — keeping the antagonism to a minimum. During a question and answer session after the speech, Mr. Gates said that America and China could follow the example of the waning years of the cold war, when negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union brought the countries closer.
During Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks here two years ago, he said that no “candid discussion of China” could ignore the rapid military buildup, and said that “since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?” The speech created a sensation at the conference and back in the United States.
Defense Department officials said that since the Rumsfeld speech, China’s government had taken steps to be more open in explaining the intentions behind its military buildup.
Last week, the Pentagon unveiled its annual report on Chinese military power that documented the People’s Liberation Army’s relentless efforts to modernize its arsenal, which the United States fears could be used to strike American bases and ships in the Pacific.
The report also warned that China was improving its ability to conduct space warfare, demonstrated by its anti-satellite missile test in January, and that China was relocating long-range ballistic missiles from underground silos to land-based mobile launchers and submarines.
But Pentagon officials traveling with Mr. Gates said they did not intend to focus on that report during the two-day conference here.
“We don’t see any reason in getting bogged down in a discussion of that report,” said a senior defense official traveling with Mr. Gates, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Instead, defense officials said they would focus on countering a growing perception that the United States, engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had neither the capability nor the desire to remain engaged in Asia.
The opposite is true, Mr. Gates said. “We are an Asian power with significant and longterm political, economic and security interests,” he said Saturday. “Our commitments elsewhere notwithstanding, we will fulfill our commitments in Asia.”
Mr. Gates also used the speech to focus on the struggles of central Asian republics, urging his counterparts at the conference to focus on economic development and military assistance as a way to battle terrorist and drug networks in the region.
He said that new initiatives in central Asia “need not be competitive, but rather complementary” with efforts by Russia and China to bolster security in the region.