- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today that the United States will remain actively engaged in Asia despite its commitments to fighting the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq.

“Some people have suggested that the United States may be neglecting Asia, because we have been too focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots,” Mr.

Gates said at the Shangri-La conference in Singapore.

“In reality, far from neglecting Asia, the U.S. is more engaged than ever before,” he said at the annual conference of defense leaders and specialists.

“We have been extraordinarily busy in recent years as we reshape and strengthen our security ties based on shared interests.” Mr. Gates said U.S. relationships in Asia have been renewed and modernized, including those with India, Japan and South Korea. In fact, the United States is set to sell advanced warplanes and high-technology military equipment to India as part of a growing relationship between the two nations.

The speech was noticeable for its few comments on China, which was the focus of a Pentagon report last week. That report stated Beijing is building up advanced forces for a conflict over Taiwan, which it considers part of China, and for operations beyond Taiwan aimed at securing energy resources and sea lanes.

Mr. Gates noted common interests with China on issues such as terrorism, countering arms proliferation and energy security.

“But we are concerned about the opaqueness of Beijing’s military spending and modernization programs - issues described in the annual report on the Chinese armed forces recently released by the U.S. government,” he said.

Mr. Gates noted that there is a difference between military capacity and intent. As a result, he said, “I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship.” His comments were in sharp contrast to the 2005 speech at the same conference by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who criticized China for its large-scale military buildup and deception on its defense spending.

Mr. Gates also spoke positively of President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq.

“The immediate goal is to create the breathing room necessary to allow reform and reconciliation to go forward - steps that will give all of Iraq’s communities - majority and minorities alike - a stake in that nation’s future,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

“Whatever your views on how we got to this point in Iraq, it is clear that a failed state in that part of the world would destabilize the region and embolden violent extremists everywhere.” In an exchange later with members of his audience, Mr. Gates was asked how long U.S. intelligence agencies think it will take Iran to build a nuclear weapon, the AP reported.

“The general view of American intelligence is that they would be in a position to develop a nuclear device probably sometime in the period 2010-2011 or 2014 or ‘15,” he said, according to the AP. “There are those who believe that it could happen much sooner - late 2008 or 2009. The reality is that because of the way Iran has conducted its affairs we really don’t know, and it puts a higher premium on international community coming together in terms of strengthening sanctions so that they begin to face serious trade-offs… in their economic future” The conference includes about 20 defense chiefs from Asia and elsewhere and is hosted by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

China’s military, however, declined to send a defense-minister level official and instead sent a less-senior military leader. The snub is intended to signal Beijing’s displeasure at participating in forums where the United States - and not China - is the major representative.