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 ...

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images
Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images

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.

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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