SINGAPORE – In a parting pitch to Asian allies, retiring U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon is considering steps to widen its military presence across the Pacific Rim. He said budget woes won't interfere. "America is, as the expression goes, putting `our money where our mouth is' with respect to this part of the world - and will continue to do so," he told Asia's premier security conference, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, on Saturday.
On his final overseas trip before stepping down June 30 — and his seventh to Asia in the last 18 months — Gates insisted that Americans' war weariness and debt worries should not be seen as setting the stage for a shrinking of U.S. commitments in Asia. On the leading sources of U.S. security concerns in Asia — North Korea and China — he made only brief mention.
But he did highlight a Pentagon commitment to developing ways of countering "anti-access" technologies of the kind that the U.S. says China is working on — advanced anti-ship missiles, for example, that could make it harder for U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships to operate in Asia seas.
On Friday evening, Gates met with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie. Gates told Liang that he believes the military-to-military relationship is "on a positive trajectory," after a series of setbacks in recent years.
.Liang said he agreed that defense ties are getting better and that they deserve still more attention.
The main elements of friction remain, however. China still claims control of waters the U.S. considers international. Chinese ambition for influence in Southeast Asia and elsewhere still makes smaller nations uneasy, while Beijing dislikes the heavy U.S. naval presence in Asian waters and builds up its military with weaponry only logically intended for use against the U.S.
A new irritant was introduced this week, with allegations that computer hackers in China had compromised the personal Gmail accounts of several hundred people, including U.S. government officials, military personnel and political activists.
The Chinese military tried to direct the spotlight off those allegations Friday, with accusations that the U.S. is launching a global "Internet war" to bring down Arab and other governments.
The FBI said it was investigating Google's allegations, but no official government email accounts have been compromised. Google said all the hacking victims have been notified and their accounts have been secured.
U.S. officials said the Google matter did not arise in Gates' meeting with Liang Friday.
In his speech Saturday, Gates said friends and foes gauging U.S. intentions should monitor more than the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Asia.
"In the coming years, the United States military is also going to be increasing its port calls, naval engagements and multilateral training efforts with multiple countries throughout the region," he said. "These types of activities not only broaden and deepen our relationship with friends and allies, but help build partner capacity to address regional challenges."
Gates offered two examples. He said the U.S. is considering a range of actions to strengthen military ties to Australia and the city-state of Singapore.
These include increasing the combined U.S.-Australian naval presence in the region to be able to respond more quickly to humanitarian disasters and expanding joint training with Singapore's forces to help prepare for the "challenges both militaries face operating in the Pacific," he said.
Gates also said the U.S. would deploy to Singapore a newly developed warship known as the littoral combat ship, which is a smaller combat vessel designed to operate close to shorelines rather than in the open ocean. They will not be home ported in Singapore but will operate there on occasion, according to a senior U.S. defense official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity in advance of Gates' speech.
"These programs are on track to grow and evolve further in the future, even in the face of new threats abroad and fiscal challenges at home, ensuring that that we will continue to meet our commitments as a 21st century Asia-Pacific nation - with appropriate forces, posture, and presence," Gates said.
President Barack Obama on April 13 announced a plan to reduce defense spending by $400 billion over the next 12 years, and some in Congress — as well as some independent analysts — are calling for far deeper reductions. With an end in sight for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense savings are central to a broader effort to shrink government deficits.
Gates acknowledged a perception that the U.S. could turn more inward-looking as it grapples with budget deficits and other domestic problems.
"No doubt, fighting two protracted and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has strained the U.S. military's ground forces and worn out the patience and appetite of the American public for similar interventions in the future," he said. "On the domestic front, the United States is emerging from a serious recession with huge budget deficits and growing debt that is putting new scrutiny and downward pressure on the U.S. defense budget."
And he said there are "still some myopic souls" who will argue that the U.S. cannot sustain its role in the Asia-Pacific area, given other high-priority security challenges such as uncertain democracy moves in the Middle East and North Africa, instability in Pakistan and global terrorist threats.
During a question-and-answer session with members of his audience after the speech, Gates said the U.S. and its allies fighting in Afghanistan will have to keep up military pressure on the Taliban in order to eventually reach a peace deal.
"The Taliban are probably a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," he said, so they could have a political role in the future. But to get to the point of a possible negotiated settlement, the Taliban will have to "begin to conclude that they cannot win militarily, he said.
As a Pentagon chief and former CIA director who has served in government for four decades fewer than eight presidents, Gates' spoke with historical sweep of the ups and downs of America's security policy in Asia.
"History's dustbin is littered with dictators and aggressors who underestimated America's resilience, will and underlying power," he said. This fits a theme Gates has stressed in a series of speeches over the past several weeks as he prepares to give way to a new Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta, who is scheduled for a Senate confirmation hearing June 9.
Gates, 67, recalled the searing failure of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the early years of his career, which began in the CIA in 1966. What happened in the years that followed offer a lesson in U.S. staying power, he said.
"Despite predictions to the contrary, America's setback in Vietnam did not spell the end of our engagement in Asia - in fact, as I mentioned earlier, we pursued a new relationship in China and have been expanding our defense partnerships in the region, including Vietnam, ever since," he said.
He predicted that the U.S. and Asia will only become more closely linked over the course of this century.
"Indeed, one of the most striking - and surprising - changes I've observed during my travels to Asia is the widespread desire across the region for stronger military-to-military relationships with the United States - much more so than during my last time in government 20 years ago." (AP)