(Adds comments from Gates in fifth paragraph.)
June 4 (Bloomberg) -- Budget cuts and the American public’s war weariness won’t be an obstacle to expanding military engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a forum in Singapore today.
A plan to deploy in Singapore new U.S. ships designed to operate close to shore and an ongoing study to develop an air- sea battle plan for longer-range operations are among initiatives Gates described in his remarks. The idea, he said, is to strengthen and expand the U.S. reach beyond Japan and South Korea to include more of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
“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,” Gates told the annual International Institute for Security Studies Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. “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.”
Gates is punctuating his overseas farewell tour before retiring from office at the end of this month with overtures to ease tensions with China alongside reassurances to traditional allies and emerging powers in the Asia-Pacific region. He sought to show the U.S. has the will and the wherewithal to stay active in the region even as $400 billion in planned defense cuts threaten personnel and weapons cuts.
That might require U.S. allies to shoulder more of the costs, the defense secretary said.
The U.S. Congress is “willing to support our forward presence, but they are going to want to ensure the terms of this presence are equitable and that the financial interests of the American people are being looked at as well,” Gates said.
The types of weapons systems that are particularly useful for U.S. military strategy in Asia -- such as long-range strike, maritime access and cyber-warfare technology -- will be high priorities and most likely to survive budget cuts, he said.
Gates, who is on his seventh trip to the region in 18 months, cited “the significant growth in the breadth and intensity of U.S. engagement in Asia in recent years, even at a time of economic distress at home and two major military campaigns ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“We recognize that the American defense engagement -- from our forward deployed forces to exercises with regional partners -- will continue to play an indispensable role in the stability of the region,” he said.
Gates paired the reassurances today with an optimistic tone yesterday in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie.
He said the two countries should press forward with easing tensions between them by working on concerns they have in common, such as North Korea and anti-piracy efforts without letting differences such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan get in the way.
The tone was different from the same forum a year ago, when Gates raised the issue of territorial disputes between China and other countries around the South China Sea. That came after leaders in Beijing suspended defense talks earlier in the year over a U.S. announcement of the latest weapons transfer to Taiwan, which the Chinese consider a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary.
“Both the U.S. and China realized at the end of 2010 that the deterioration in the bilateral relationship was not good for any side,” said Li Mingjiang, a professor at the Singapore- based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Now, he said, “there seems to be a willingness from either side to be cautious on issues that are sensitive to both sides.”
Still, the U.S. isn’t naïve and plans to continue forging alliances and partnerships to reinforce its influence and respond to requests from an increasing number of nations in the region for joint security projects, said U.S. defense officials briefing reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. has become more active in Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and other regional forums. Gates warned of “increasing” tensions in the South China Sea if Asean and China fail to agree on a binding code of conduct.
“I fear that without rules of the road and without agreed approaches to dealing with these problems, that there will be clashes,” Gates said. “That serves nobody’s interest.”
The Obama administration also is considering increasing joint naval capabilities to respond more rapidly to humanitarian disasters, improving facilities in the Indian Ocean, possibly with Australia, and expanding exercises for amphibious and land operations with other countries, Gates said.
Even considering the disputes between the two sides, the Chinese haven’t raised objections to the technology the U.S. is developing, the U.S. defense officials.
Citing ongoing territorial disputes between China and other countries in the region, Gates also reiterated the U.S. “national interest in freedom of navigation, unimpeded economic development and commerce and the respect for international law.”
In his speech, Gates reviewed several instances historically in which the Asian region doubted the U.S. commitment to staying involved. He cited examples in each case that he said proved the doubters wrong.
“I believe our work in Asia is laying the groundwork for continued prosperity and security for the United States and for the region,” he said. “As I leave the United States government, I have no doubt that future generations will have a similar story to tell about the benefits of American power, presence and commitment in this region.”
--With assistance from Daniel Ten Kate in Singapore. Editors: Leslie Hoffecker, Paul Tighe
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