In a message clearly aimed at China, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today that fast-growing Asian powers "risk blundering" into confrontation and sparking a new arms race unless they follow widely accepted international rules.
Gates said the U.S. supported the rapid economic growth of emerging Asian nations. But he warned that the rapid military modernization that has accompanied such prosperity could destabilize the region unless governments are more forthcoming about why they are acquiring new weaponry.
Although Gates did not criticize China by name in his address to a gathering of Asian defense officials, the Bush administration has repeatedly complained that Beijing's military buildup has not been accompanied by clear explanations of why it is acquiring a new generation of weapons. Some in the Pentagon fear that such arms could be aimed at U.S. bases and regional allies.
"A lack of clarity about a neighbor's strategic intentions all too often prompts reliance, and sometimes over-reliance, on counter-strategies and hedging that can, over time, yield to outright suspicion," Gates said. "This is a direction we seek to avoid."
Gates characterized his remarks as part of a gradual shift in the Bush administration's policy in Asia, saying the administration's increasing support for economic cooperation was part of an effort to more closely embrace "soft elements" of U.S. power.
But he also noted that the U.S. has been working hard to build up the militaries of its allies in the region, a move that senior Pentagon officials acknowledge could provide a hedge against any Chinese expansionism.
Gates spoke on the opening day of an annual conference in Singapore organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies that has in recent years become a barometer of Sino-American relations.
Gates' predecessor as Defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, occasionally used the gathering to berate China for what he deemed a secretive military buildup. Gates has been far less confrontational, but has continued to raise similar concerns about the direction of China's military spending, which the Pentagon estimates hit as much as $139 billion last year.
Gates touched on other regional issues in his address, particularly the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. He chastised the country's military government for delaying deliveries of international relief aid, calling it a move that came "at a cost of tens of thousands of lives."
But the bulk of his speech appeared aimed at assuring regional allies that the U.S. was not too distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with the challenges presented by China's rapid rise.
He noted that in the 18 months he has served as Defense secretary, he has made four trips to the region, and that his current tour, which will include stops in Thailand and South Korea, was his second this year.
Gates also insisted that whichever party wins the American presidency in November, the U.S. will continue to push for free trade and safe commerce in the region, as well as "freedom from domination by any hegemonic force."
Gates said the U.S. welcomed the newfound prosperity of once-impoverished Asian countries and would continue to encourage such economic development, as long as their governments did not act belligerently.
Gates mentioned China by name largely only when he was praising it, including Beijing's work pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions and the government's response to recent earthquakes.
However, he made repeated references to issues the Pentagon has raised with China in the past, including the shoot-down in February of a wayward satellite by the U.S. The Defense Department has used its public disclosure of the antisatellite operation to contrast with a similar move made by China last year, which was shrouded in secrecy.