World's defense chiefs meet in Singapore

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The sixth Asia Security Conference, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, came to an end on Sunday in Singapore, highlighted by a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a senior Chinese defense official, Lt. Gen. Zhang Qisheng.

Named for its venue, the five-star Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, the annual meeting of top defense officials is organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

The big issue at the Shangri-La gathering focused on China and its military buildup. China has announced it will boost military spending by 17.8 percent in 2007 to 350.921 billion yuan (about US$44.94 billion), the biggest increase in more than ten years. But U.S. defense officials have said they believe actual spending is up to three times higher, and they have called on China to be more transparent.

"There's no question that the Chinese are building significant capacity," Gates said in Honolulu before he flew to Singapore. "Our concern is over their intent."

China's delegation was led by Zhang, the People's Liberation Army deputy chief of the general staff. In his address on Saturday, Zhang defended China's reported defense-spending figures.

"In China, defense budgeting must follow a set of highly strict legal procedures, and the published Chinese defense budget is true and authentic," he said, attributing the increase to inflation and logistical and welfare support of its troops. "Given the multiple security threats, geo-political environment,the size of the territory, and the per-capita expense, the Chinese defense expenditure is small by all judgments," Zhang added.

Zhang said there are plans in the works to open an emergency hotline with the U.S., and that a deal to do so would be finalized in September.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army on Saturday in Singapore.

At the end of the conference, Gates termed U.S.-China relations thusly: "In terms of our bilateral relationship, I wouldn't describe it as a breakthrough but as a next step in a process of military-to-military conversations which we will continue in the future."

For other countries in Asia, it's China's powerful economy that causes more concern, said Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an opening speech on Friday.

"Most Asian countries assess the challenge from China to be more economic than military," Lee said. He added that China's military build up is mainly a response to Taiwan, and he warned that if Taiwan seeks to further establish its independence, it could lead to "unintended and dangerous escalation of tensions between China and the U.S."

India, too, is flexing its military muscle, with Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony giving a talk on Saturday, "China and India: Building International Stability."

"India is ready to play its role in the shaping of this new approach to collective security," Antony said. "Only a pluralistic security order working through a network of cooperative structures can have the legitimacy as well as the wherewithal to deal with the security challenges of the 21st century."

Other delegations included Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Concern about Iran's nuclear program came up in comments by Gates on Saturday, saying stronger penalties are needed against Iran "not next year or the year after, but right now." Gates did not rule out military action to stop Iran's nuclear research, even if it wasn't the most attractive option. "Probably everybody in this room wants there to be a diplomatic solution to this problem," he said. "Having to take care of this problem militarily is in no one's interest."

On a tour of the Asia-Pacific region, Gates also worked to assure his counterparts in other countries that the United States' involvement in Iraq would not undermine its role in Asia. "While we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terror, we have no intention of neglecting Asia," Gates said on Friday in Honolulu.

In particular, Gates said the U.S. is keen to develop better relations with Central Asian states, and he called on other countries in the region to reach out and help Afghanistan and its neighbors, such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"Integrating these newly independent states into the fold of the greater Asian family is in the interest of every country represented in this room. Of course, the degree that Central Asian states and Afghanistan choose to integrate into greater Asia is a decision for each of those sovereign countries. We will not assume to make decisions for them, but it is important that the welcome mat be out for them. The failure to do so could ultimately have devastating results," Gates said an address on Saturday at the Singapore meeting.

His remarks come as the U.S. is facing pressure in Kyrgyzstan over its Manas Air Base, which supports U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. The base has taken on strategic importance to the U.S. after it left Uzbekistan in 2005 after the U.S. criticized that country's human rights record. Gates visited the air base on Sunday.

Closer to home for the Singaporeans, there was talk about piracy in the Malacca Strait, and the need to develop better communication and cooperation between the security forces of the concerned countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

With as much as 40 percent of the world's trade passing through the Malacca Strait, the U.S. is concerned, said U.S. Navy Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. "We have discussed enhancing maritime security throughout the region. It is a matter of significance and importance to us," Keating told the conference. "We are not satisfied with the current state but we are pleased with the progress we've made," he said, noting that their security cooperation has improved and there have been no recent major incidences of piracy in the Strait.

The issue of Myanmar and its military government came up during Prime Minister Lee's talk on Friday, with Lee saying the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, "ought not to be hostage with the problems with Myanmar."

ASEAN has come under pressure for its admission of Myanmar, which is ruled by a junta that has refused to cede to a democratically elected government. But ASEAN has a policy of non-engagement in internal conflicts of its members. "We will leave Myanmar to work itself out," Lee said.


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