SHANGRI-LA HOTEL, Singapore - The U.S. and China are both striving to portray a warm bilateral relationship as they headline a huge international security conference in Singapore this weekend. Meanwhile, the U.S. side is preparing to unveil parts of its new approach to Southeast Asia, which will include more U.S. military ties to the region as a means of countering growing Chinese influence.
Here at the 10th annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the U.S. charm offensive is in full swing, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates previewing his keynote speech by saying that U.S.-China relations are improving and the U.S. welcomes China's rise.
"We are not trying to hold China down. China has been a great power for thousands of years. It is a global power and will be a global power," Gates told reporters on the plane ride to the conference, which begins today and goes through Sunday, with 35 nations participating. The conference is being hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"We're very satisfied with the progress of the relationship," Gates claimed. "My first visit to China in this job was in the fall of 2007. I laid out a fairly ambitious agenda for developing our military-to-military relationship. We've obviously hit snags and obstacles along the way, but I think we're in a pretty good place now, pretty realistic."
This is Gates' fifth appearance at Shangri-La and his final appearance as defense secretary. He steps down July 1 and CIA Director Leon Panetta has been nominated to replace him. Last year he made news by criticizing China's People's Liberation Army and defending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but this year he is striking a conciliatory tone and striving to avoid any controversy that could be portrayed as a negative ripple in U.S.-China relations.
For example, Gates was asked on the plane what he thinks about the prospect of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, an idea supported heavily by at least 45 U.S. senators.
"I don't have a view on that at this point," Gates said.
But lying just underneath the veneer of warm words, there are large strategic issues in play and Gates is planning to unveil some, but not all, of the U.S. plans to increase its military relationships and involvement in Southeast Asia, despite growing budget problems back in Washington.
The Obama administration is quietly shifting its strategic focus toward more emphasis on Southeast Asia, due to the recognition that the region's importance is growing in the military, diplomatic, and trade arenas. China made a play for increased power in the region in 2009 and 2010, but was rebuked by skiddish countries wary of China's intentions. The U.S. is responding by assuring these countries that America is in the region for the long haul.
"[T]here has been really extraordinary progress made, particularly in the last couple of years or so with a number of countries in strengthening our military-to-military relationships and our overall relationship -- Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Australia certainly, as well as our traditional allies in Thailand, Japan, and Korea," Gates said. "And I think the general recognition on the part of all the countries over the past several years that their own security environment is evolving and their desire to adjust their own positions accordingly and the need for us to be flexible as we develop our relationships with these countries and the nature of the activities that we have with others, whether it's exercises or training programs or equipment or whatever."
"What I will largely talk about at the conference is the evolution and the changes in these positions and kind of where we are and moving to the future," Gates said, declining to give details of his Saturday keynote address.
Looming over the promise of increased U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia is the fact that the U.S. fiscal situation is horrid and the Pentagon's mammoth budget is under the microscope like never before. But Gates said that was being taken into consideration when making plans to increase U.S. military involvement in the region.
"[I]n a way many of the things that we're doing in Asia in building these relationships are actually pretty cost effective -- training, exercises, rotations of forces and so on are -- and the use of our Navy, our air assets moving from place to place. I think these are all cost effective ways of enhancing our influence, but also letting these countries know that we're a reliable partner and that we can be counted on," he said.
"Everything will be on the table, but I believe that our approach to enhancing our relationships, our presence and our influence in Asia is a very cost effective approach."
Gates is trying to be kind to the Chinese, but when questioned directly he gave a sober assessment of what he sees as their intentions.
"They are clearly working on capabilities that are of concern to us in terms of denial of access, particularly with respect to our aircraft carriers, the development of long-range accurate cruise and ballistic anti-ship missile... my sense of it is that they are -- and in their efforts frankly to build a blue water navy," he said. "I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence."
As the conference begins, all eyes are on Gates and the Chinese delegation, which will be headed for the first time by Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie. Gates and Liang will hold a bilateral meeting today. A joint press statement may be in the works.
The heat is on here at the beautiful Shangri-La luxury hotel. Your humble Cable guy arrived at 1 AM to find a member of the local security service passed out on the curb in front of the lobby, being treated by emergency medical personnel. Hotel staff told us he had suffered cardiac arrest due to heat exhaustion. We are pleased to report he is recovering now at a local hospital.
Follow us here on The Cable for constant updates on the conference throughout the weekend and find more information at IISS's blog Shangri-La Voices. Politico's Mike Allen also scored an interview with Gates on the plane, which can be found here.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.