China looms over Gates' tour

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrapped up a six-day visit to three regional democracies Wednesday, working to strengthen ties and upgrade the militaries of all three, which have increasingly complex relationships with a burgeoning China.

In two days of talks with Indian leaders, Gates spent more time discussing New Delhi's security challenges with Beijing than with its traditional regional rival Pakistan, according to a senior Defense Department official who attended the meetings.

As with earlier stops in Australia and Indonesia, upgrading fighter planes and expanding bilateral military cooperation topped Gates' agenda here. But the secretary, speaking to a small group of reporters after the talks, denied that the Bush administration was seeking to modernize the three countries' militaries with China in mind.

"I don't see our improving military relationship in the region in the context of any other country, including China," Gates said, citing anti-piracy and humanitarian missions conducted by allied militaries in the region. "These expanding relationships don't necessarily have to be directed against anyone."

But senior Defense officials traveling with Gates acknowledged that India's military buildup, which includes a $10-billion competition for a new fighter jet and an expansion of its deep-water navy, was coming in similar areas where China is rapidly upgrading.

U.S. companies have been invited to offer American-built fighters in the Indian competition, a major breakthrough in a country that has traditionally bought Russian weaponry. One Defense official suggested that such a purchase, along with similar moves by Indonesia and Australia, could allow the three nations' militaries to work more closely to counter China's rise.

"There are reasons for having interoperable weapons systems with armed forces that can smoothly train and work with each other, not in an aggressive sense, but certainly as a hedge," the official said.

Another Defense official said of India's spending spree, which has made it one of the largest buyers from foreign arms companies: "Looking around the world, they saw that they were falling behind and needed to modernize."

Gates flew Wednesday evening to Turkey, where he is meeting with Turkish political and military leaders today.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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