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Gates to Display U.S. Military Staying Power on Asia Trip

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his last official trip to Asia, aims to underscore the region’s prominent place on the U.S. agenda and to urge China to strengthen ties regardless of disagreements.

Gates, who retires from office next month, left Washington today and will attend an Asia security forum in Singapore, where he will also hold talks with Japanese, Chinese, Australian and other counterparts.

He’ll detail measures by the Pentagon to reinforce American staying power in the region, U.S. defense officials said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity. The defense chief will try to show that crises in the Middle East and North Africa aren’t distracting the Obama administration from Asia, the official said.

Gates has “been pretty resolute in the way that he has reiterated that the United States is an inherent Asia-Pacific power,” said Tim Huxley, director for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is hosting the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore later this week. Huxley credits Gates with saying “things that have been important for the U.S. to say, at a time when the regional distribution of power is clearly in a state of flux.”

China is sending to the forum its highest-level official ever, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. That gives Gates another opening, since the two met in January in Beijing, to reinforce the need for stable, reliable and continuous military relations between the U.Sl and China, the U.S. defense officials said.

‘Growing Concern’

Gates is the latest of a stream of U.S. officials visiting Asia as the Obama administration comes to grips with China’s rise. The Chinese military’s modernization, which the U.S. sees as a potential threat, and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors around the South China Sea, have raised tensions.

Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing oil and gas exploration in areas of the South China Sea claimed by China, risking clashes in one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.

Leaders in Beijing, who say American leaders must acknowledge their “core interests” in Asia, often suspend ties over disagreements such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan or overtures to the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama.

Taiwan Arms

Members of Congress are advocating more weapons for Taiwan, especially long-requested F-16 C/D fighter jets, as China strengthens its forces across the Taiwan Strait.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and 45 other members from both parties wrote Obama on May 26 urging him to expedite the sale of 66 of the aircraft made by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland

“Beijing presently has more than 1,400 missiles aimed at Taiwan, and China is in the process of deploying next generation Chinese and Russian manufactured ships, fighter aircraft, and submarines,” the senators wrote, adding that experts “have raised concerns that Taiwan is losing the qualitative advantage in defensive arms that has long served as its primary military deterrent against China.”

While Chinese officials agreed in Washington earlier this month to conduct joint disaster relief and counter-piracy drills, they also reiterated their irritation at U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

“The Chinese are being very forward-leaning now in a couple of areas and very tough in a couple of others,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

‘Totally Misunderstood’

Retired Admiral Bill Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who’s lived in Beijing and Hong Kong for the past five years, said the U.S. should stop arms transfers to Taiwan at least while China shows more peaceful behavior.

China’s position on the South China Sea may be a less alarming than it seems, Owens said in a phone interview last week. “We may have totally misunderstood China’s statements,” he said. “It’s not a first-level national interest in the same sense that Taiwan or Tibet could be.”

Gates plans to follow up on his request to Chinese President Hu Jintao in January to begin formal talks that bring civilian and military officials on both sides together to discuss nuclear power, space, cyberspace and missile defense, the defense officials said.

U.S. officials have raised questions about whether civilian Chinese leaders were either aware or had endorsed antagonistic moves, such as a test flight during Gates’s Beijing visit in January of a new fighter jet that may have stealth capabilities.

Japan Bases

Throughout the region, U.S. allies and security partners have been looking for signs of its commitment, Huxley said. That includes force levels, exercises, naval visits and in some cases military assistance, arms sales and technology transfer.

When meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Singapore, Gates will focus on lessons learned from the joint efforts in the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis this year, and on a planned move of some U.S. Marines on Okinawa, partly to Guam and others to a less-populous location on the island, one of the U.S. officials said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, joined Senators John McCain of Arizona, the panel’s senior Republican, and Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the personnel subcommittee, in urging changes to the basing agreement with Japan, signed in 2006.

The agreements involved were carefully crafted over years, one of the U.S. defense officials said. The U.S. has balked at Japan’s own requests for changes in recent years. The Senators’ letter doesn’t change the administration’s approach.

On his way to Singapore, Gates will stop in Hawaii, the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command. After Singapore, he will attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers meeting in Brussels next week.

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