Gates says he is going into the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore with the message that Washington will continue to build relationships with its Asian allies despite potential budget restrictions.
“I would say, if anything, these pressures put a premium on multilateral responses to problems. Whether it's humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, where we see opportunities with a number of countries out here, including China” said Gates.
This year China is sending to Singapore Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who is the most senior Chinese official to attend the annual security conference. Gates and Liang are expected to hold a bilateral meeting Friday.
Speaking to reporters en route to the conference Thursday, Gates said he is very satisfied with the progress of Washington's relationship with Beijing, but he sees room for improvement between their two militaries.
He says continued dialogue is important to that relationship, especially because Beijing and Washington remain at odds about American arms sales to Taiwan.
“Under those circumstances, there is value in a continuing dialogue by the two sides of just exactly what our concerns are, what our issues are and how we might alleviate the concerns on both sides,” he said.
Gates says Washington remains concerned about China’s military research projects, such as anti-ship missiles and stealth fighter aircraft.
But he says he does not think China aims to use those projects to deny the United States access in the region.
“I think the Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience and they do not intend to try and compete with us across the full range of military capabilities. But, I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence,” Gates stated.
That influence at times has concerned China’s neighbors and could be a topic of discussion here in Singapore.
Since last week, reports of Chinese vessels violating territorial claims in the South China Sea have provoked formal protests from the Philippines and Vietnam. Both countries complained that China allegedly violated their territorial waters by either erecting marker posts on small reefs and islands or chasing away their ships.
The Philippine and Vietnamese governments have sent representatives to the Shangri-La Dialogue.