Gates offers reassurance for Asia
By Ralph A Cossa
The United States is a "resident" power in Asia that has been and will remain
fully engaged in the region and both supportive of and involved in the
development of any regional security architecture.
This was the central message delivered by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at
the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this past weekend. Press coverage
has focused on his "subtle warnings" to China and blunt comments about Myanmar,
but the real message was one of reassurance of continued US commitment to the
This was clearly underscored by Gates' three main points: the US is "a Pacific
nation with an enduring role in Asia"; Washington stands "for openness, against
exclusivity"; and that the future
policy of any new US administration will remain "grounded in the fact that the
United States remains a nation with strong and enduring interests in the
As one would expect, he pointed to Washington's five alliances with Australia,
Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand as "the foundation of our
security presence", adding that they were "enabled and strengthened by our
relationships with partners and friends".
He stressed the important role of America's military presence, in Guam and in
the region, as a signal of continued commitment and the ability "to respond
quickly to a number of contingencies".
Unlike the speeches of his predecessor, Gates barely mentioned China by name
and when he did, it was generally in complimentary or sympathetic terms. He
praised Beijing's "valued cooperation" on Korean Peninsula denuclearization and
noted the increased level of engagement (including inauguration of a Defense
Telephone Link) between the two militaries, while extending condolences over
the tragic loss of life during the Sichuan earthquake.
More obliquely (but with China clearly in mind), he acknowledged regional
worries about rising demand for resources and about "coercive diplomacy" and
called for "more military openness in military modernization in Asia". He cited
the advanced notification and open manner in which the US shot down a defunct
satellite in February as an example of US military transparency; the comparison
with China's antisatellite test last year was obvious, even if left unsaid.
Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of the Chinese People's
Liberation Army (PLA) was a bit less subtle. He did not mention the US at all
(other than including Hurricane Katrina in the list of recent natural
disasters), but did identify "expansion of military alliance" and "development
and expansion of missile defense system" among the major security challenges
the region faces.
While Gates saw alliances as a positive factor, Ma saw them as "ensuring
security of some countries at the expense of others". Several questions from
the floor asking for further clarification on this point were left unanswered.
Missile defense, according to Ma, was "not helpful in strategic balance",
although he failed to explain why the massive build-up of offensive missiles
opposite Taiwan was any less helpful.
Nonetheless, Ma's central message was also one of reassurance: "China is a
peace-loving country," Ma assured the audience, that would always adopt "a
defensive defense policy", would not engage in an arms race, would never seek
hegemony or expansion, and would be a "military threat to no other country".
He also noted the "positive developments" and "good momentum" in the
cross-Taiwan Strait situation, albeit while still noting that "the mission of
opposing and curbing secessionist activities remains strenuous".
Ma shared the podium with Japanese Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru who, along
with Ma, underscored the improved nature of China-Japan relations. Ishiba more
specifically called on Beijing to increase its military transparency, even
while noting that "Japan does not subscribe to purposely overstating China as a
The toughest questions from the floor were directed toward and largely
unanswered or evaded by Aye Myint, Myanmar's deputy minister of defense, who
wanted the audience to believe that Cyclone Nargis rescue and recovery
operations were proceeding smoothly, while assuring his colleagues that all
outside aid was welcome "as long as there were no strings attached".
It was refreshing to hear an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
senior statesman press his Myanmar colleague on the issue of "responsibility to
protect", even if there was no follow through. One senses the genuine sense of
embarrassment in ASEAN over Yangon's actions in the wake of the natural
disaster. Whether this takes the form of policy-related actions or decisions
remains to be seen, however. The one thing that virtually all present,
specifically including Gates, seemed to agree on was that there would be no
forced distribution of aid.
The toughest response to a question came from Gates. In his prepared remarks,
Gates had been factual and largely neutral in discussing Myanmar, merely noting
the US willingness to help, despite obstructions, and welcoming ASEAN's
leadership in searching for a mechanism to help get aid to those most in need.
When asked by a former Singapore diplomat why Washington was not prepared to
change its "failed policy of isolationism" against Yangon, however, Gates
forcefully pointed out, "We have reached out; they have kept their hands in
their pockets," adding that to date ASEAN's engagement policy likewise seems to
have had "zero influence" on Yangon. The problem here is not Washington's (or
ASEAN's) policies; it's the ruling junta in Myanmar!
Unlike speeches by his predecessors at earlier Shangri-La Dialogues, Gates
essentially avoided talking about the Middle East or global issues in general,
other than to acknowledge regional concerns that US actions in Iraq and
Afghanistan were distracting Washington from focusing on Asia, a notion he
hoped his speech would serve to disabuse.
Refreshingly, nowhere in Gates' speech was there any reference to the global
"war on terror", indicating that the Pentagon has clearly gotten the message
that Washington's constant hectoring on this topic is counterproductive and
sends the wrong message about US priorities in Asia.
What defense establishments in Asia wanted and needed to hear was the
reassurance that, despite commitments and distractions elsewhere, Washington
remained aware of the region's growing importance and would remain engaged
today and into the foreseeable future, regardless of who the next US president