Gates to Showcase U.S. Military Staying Power on Last Asia Trip

Defense Secretary Robert Gates today headed for his last official trip to Asia, where he’ll aim to underscore the region’s prominent place on the U.S. agenda and urge China to strengthen ties regardless of disagreements.

Gates, who retires from office this month, will attend an Asia security forum in Singapore and also hold talks with his counterparts from Japan, China and Australia.

“Even as we look at potential budget reductions, there is no slackening of the U.S. commitment to our presence in Asia,” Gates told reporters yesterday in Honolulu after a tour of the USS Missouri, which was decommissioned in 1992. The battleship, now a memorial and historic site, hosted the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay that ended World War II in July 1945.

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

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

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 have raised tensions.

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

China leaders, who say the U.S. 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.

While Chinese officials agreed in Washington earlier this month to conduct joint disaster relief and counter-piracy exercises, they also reiterated what they consider irritants, including 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.

U.S.-China Talks

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’ Beijing visit in January of a new fighter jet that may have stealth capabilities.

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.

Gates will also meet with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Singapore and discuss joint efforts in coping with Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis, a U.S. official said. They will also discuss plans to move some U.S. Marines on Okinawa, partly to a less-populous location on the island and others to Guam.

Japan Bases

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 military base 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.

After Singapore, Gates will attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers meeting in Brussels next week.

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