The Cable

Clinton starts weeklong focus on the Arab world

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.

Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.

"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."

"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."

Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."

Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.

This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free. 

In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "

In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.

The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."

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The Cable

Will China make Gates' visit worth the trip?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China and Japan this week in what will be the most public demonstration of the resumption of the U.S.-China military to military relationship since Beijing suspended cooperation early in 2010. However, the future of military cooperation between the two world powers is far from determined.

The Gates trip follows a series of discussions between U.S. and Chinese defense officials last month on how to improve ties between the Pacific's two most important military powers. The Chinese cut off military relations in February 2010 to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but the Obama administration has held firm in its stance that military cooperation is mutually beneficial to both countries, and therefore should not be used as leverage over Washington by Beijing .

The question remains whether the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is genuinely interested in deepening its connections to the Defense Department or whether the resumption of talks is a way for Beijing to remove the issue from the agenda of the upcoming summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao later this month in Washington.

"The PLA is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China." Gates said in June after being denied entry into China during a visit to Singapore for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

Senior defense officials in Washington view the trip as a positive step but note that Gates' meetings are only the start of the effort to build better military ties with China.

"With Secretary Gates' trip, I think we can agree that the military-to-military relationship has been restored," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer at a Thursday event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "This trip represents a step forward, an important one we think."

But there are already a number of signs that the PLA is still skeptical of working with the Pentagon, even as they welcome Gates.

For example, Gates has no plans to visit any PLA facilities that haven't previously been seen by U.S. officials. Such visits are often a sign that the PLA is extending an olive branch, as they did in 2005 when they allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to visit the PLA's 2nd Artillery headquarters.

(UPDATE: A senior U.S. government official said that Gates will in fact visit the 2nd Artillery HQ to talk strategic issues.)

Also, in advance of the trip, the Chinese have rolled out the J20, their new advanced fighter plane, which is designed to counter (and kind of looks like) the U.S. Air Force's F-22. That's the plane that Gates fought successfully to end production of last year. Last week, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Robert Willard told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun that the PLA has also reached initial operating capability for its new "carrier killer" anti-ship cruise missile.

"Across a broad array of weapons systems, they are making progress,'' U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David Dorsett told reporters on Wednesday. While the development of the new stealth fighter was anticipated, he said that "the speed at which they are making progress . . . we underestimated.''

So how do we measure if Gates' China trip is a success? The longstanding goals of the Pentagon, in addition to increasing lines of communication, are to press China for more transparency in its military spending and strategic thinking, and to further institutionalize cooperation on maritime security, anti-piracy, and counter-proliferation efforts. But the Pentagon is being clear that it doesn't expect any major steps forward during this visit.

"This is an incremental process. All too often the military-to-military relationship falls victim to people who have very high expectations," said Schiffer. "I would much rather have us make some progress that is tangible... than to put ourselves at risk by having unrealistic expectations."

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