The Cable

Gates to unveil plans to increase U.S. military involvement in SE Asia

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.


The Cable

U.S. and China set for military talks in Singapore

Military and political leaders from 25 countries are descending on Singapore this week for a major security conference, but all eyes are on the United States and China, the two Pacific powers whose defense chiefs will headline the event.

By the time you read this, your humble Cable guy will be en route to the 10th annual Shangri-la Security Dialogue in Singapore hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The conference, which runs from June 3 to June 5, is the world's largest annual meeting of top defense and military officials from Asian and Pacific countries and will feature the participation of at least 19 defense ministers, 10 national military chiefs, three foreign ministers, one prime minister and one president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will deliver a keynote speech in what will be his last foreign trip before handing over the reins to current CIA Director Leon Panetta, who has been nominated to replace him. Last year, Gates's speech made huge news. He lashed out at China's People's Liberation Army, which denied his request to visit China as part of the trip due to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

"Chinese officials have broken off military-to-military interactions between our militaries, citing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as the rationale. For a variety of reasons, this makes little sense," Gates said at the conference. "Only in the military-to-military arena has progress on critical mutual security issues been held hostage over something that is, quite frankly, old news. It has been clear to everyone during the more than 30 years since normalization that interruptions in our military relationship with China will not change U.S. policy toward Taiwan."

Gates also held the line against Chinese attempts to claim sovereignty of the South China Sea, and he publicly accused the PLA of being "less interested" in a relationship with the United States than the political leadership in Beijing. Since then, Gates was allowed to visit China, U.S.-China military-to-military relations resumed, and the improvement in relations was cemented by a January state visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

This year, Gates wants to stress "continuity" and assure Asian allies that the United States won't scale back its military commitment to the region despite looming budget cuts. "The critical message is that 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 during a stop in Hawaii. "We are a Pacific nation.'

Meanwhile, the Chinese are stepping up their game, sending Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie to the dialogue for the first time.

John Chipman, director general and chief executive of IISS, told The Cable that China's increased representation shows their eagerness to increase their engagement on a multilateral level and a recognition that the PLA wants to soften its image after a series of steps that were seen as too aggressive resulted in a downturn in relations with its neighbors.

"The Chinese Defense White Paper issued in March made special reference to the importance of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue for regional defense cooperation. I am delighted that following excellent discussions with the People's Liberation Army in Beijing at the time of the White Paper's release, the defense minister has chosen to take part with a senior delegation of officers in this years' dialogue," Chipman said

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell briefed the Washington policy community on the U.S. government's goals for the conference in a May 31 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He predicted Gates would make some announcements about U.S. force posture in Asia.

"Our overall goal is to secure a strong, enduring American presence that sends a message of commitment not just to Northeast Asia but increasingly to Southeast Asia and other countries in the region as a whole," Campbell said. "It is an animating feature of the Global Posture Review and you will see in Shangri-la Secretary Gates unveiling some specific concepts and ideas in the coming days."

The U.S. delegation will also use the conference to prepare for its first meeting as a member of the November's East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, which President Barack Obama will attend. Campbell reinforced the message of U.S.-China cooperation.

"One of the things that we want to underscore in our dealings with the ASEAN forum and East Asia Summit is that the United States and China ought to work together, [we] want to demonstrate that very clearly," he said.

Other prominent members of the U.S. delegation will include Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Pacific Command chief Adm. Robert Willard, and outgoing Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will also attend.

International leaders at the conference will include Malaysian Prime Minister Najib bin Tun Hj Abdul Razak, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, British Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, and Burmese Minister for Defense Major General Hla Min.

Burma is a candidate for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, but the United States is poised to oppose such a move. Campbell said that although the United States still believes dialogue with the Burmese junta is possible, the Obama administration is disappointed with the lack of progress in Burma's political reform process.

"It is not enough to say ‘be patient, give us time,'" said Campbell. "There has been an enormous amount of time, there's been substantial patience, first from friends in ASEAN who for years were hoping and waiting for progress that has not passed."

Philip Walker contributed reporting to this article.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images