Gates: Despite budget woes, U.S. military commitment to Asia will increase

Gates: Despite budget woes, U.S. military commitment to Asia will increase

SINGAPORE – The U.S. will increase its military involvement and commitment to Asia, especially Southeast Asia, despite having a cash-strapped, worn out military machine, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a conference of major Asian military leaders Saturday morning.

"History’s dustbin is littered with dictators and aggressors who underestimated America’s resilience, will, and underlying strength," he declared.

Gates, speaking at the 10th annual IISS Shangri-La Security Dialogue, laid out several ways in which the U.S. will ramp up its military presence in the region, adding attention and resources to the military relationships with countries such as Singapore and Australia, in order to maintain America’s position as the guarantor of regional peace and security. The moves are not directed specifically at China, Gates’ aides claimed.

"[W]e meet today at a time when the United States faces a daunting set of challenges at home and abroad, when questions are being raised about the sustainability and credibility of our commitments around the world. These questions are serious and legitimate," Gates told the audience of defense and military officials from 35 Asian and Pacific countries.

He acknowledged that the U.S. military is strained from 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the U.S. economy is forcing unprecedented downward pressure on defense budgets. 

"But at the same time, it is important, in this place, before this audience, to recognize an equally compelling set of facts with respect to America’s position in Asia. A record demonstrating that, irrespective of the tough times the U.S. faces today, or the tough budget choices we confront in the coming years, that America’s core interests as a Pacific nation – as a country that conducts much of its trade in the region – will endure," he said.

Gates laid out several ways in which the U.S. was preparing to increase its military presence and infrastructure in Southeast Asia. In Australia, he talked about increasing the U.S. Naval presence "to respond more rapidly to humanitarian disasters," upgrading military facilities on the Indian Ocean, and ramping up military training exercises, "activities that could involve other partners in the region," he said. 

For Singapore, Gates said the U.S. would deploy more ships there, including the new Littoral Combat Ship, move more U.S. military supplies to Singapore to "improve disaster response," and upgrade command and control capabilities there.

"Taken together, all of these developments demonstrate the commitment of the United States to sustaining a robust military presence in Asia – one that underwrites stability by supporting and reassuring allies while deterring, and if necessary defeating, potential adversaries," Gates said. 

Gates talked in his speech about the new U.S. military focus on what’s called "Air-Sea Battle," which is meant to overcome anti-access and area denial scenarios "to ensure that America’s military will continue to be able to deploy, move, and strike over great distances in defense of our allies and vital interests."

But don’t think of China when thinking about those "potential adversaries," three senior defense officials told reporter in a background briefing before the speech. 

"A lot of this seems to be aimed at reassuring allies, but that seems to have beneath it more of an adversarial relationship with China, as opposed to the today message of ‘chummy, chummy,’" one reporter pointed out to the officials.

"You assume all those things are directed at China… they aren’t exclusively China related, but it obviously does apply to them as well," a senior defense official said. 

"The anti-access capabilities investments, there’s only one country that worries us, and that’s China," another reporter pointed out.

"That’s only one part of talking about our interests and our continuing engagement in the region," another senior defense official insisted. 

So how is the U.S. going to pay for all this? Well, that’s not exactly clear. The Pentagon is doing a top to bottom review now in order to help find the $400 billion of cuts in security spending that President Obama ordered over the next 12 years.

Gates said that the review isn’t complete but certain types of modernization programs would be protected, including air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.   

"Though the review is not complete, I am confident that these key remaining modernization programs – systems that are of particular importance to our military strategy in Asia – will rank at or near the top of our defense budget priorities in the future," he said.

Gates’ speech contained none of the criticisms of China’s People’s Liberation Army that he laid out in his speech to the same conference last year. "We are also now working together with China to build a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship," he said. 

Gates steps down July 1 and CIA Director Leon Panetta has been nominated to replace him. Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie Friday. Liang addresses the conference Sunday.