SINGAPORE Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday he believed the Chinese military was thwarting efforts to improve military-to-military relations in an apparent split with the country's political leadership.
China scaled back military ties with the United States after the Obama administration notified Congress in January of a plan to sell Taiwan up to $6.4 billion worth of arms.
In what some American officials took as a snub, China turned down a proposed visit by Gates aimed at mending fences during his trip to Asia this week.
U.S. officials have long described China as a "hard target" for intelligence-gathering. Gates, a former CIA director, acknowledged that the Pentagon was having difficulty reading the intentions of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"My opinion (is) that the PLA is significantly less interested in developing this relationship than the political leadership of the country," Gates told reporters on his plane as he arrived in Singapore to attend a major security conference.
"I'm disappointed that the PLA leadership has not seen the same potential benefits from this kind of a military-to-military relationship as their own leadership and the United States seemed to think would be a benefit," he said.
Gates is scheduled to meet his Japanese and South Korean counterparts but not a Chinese delegation, led by a general, at the summit in Singapore.
Some U.S. officials saw the friction with China as particularly worrisome given heightened tensions in the region after the United States and South Korea concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
Seoul wants the U.N. Security Council to censure North Korea for allegedly torpedoing the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors. It was the deadliest military incident between the two Koreas since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
But Beijing, which is North Korea's only major ally and which fought alongside the North in the Korean War, has declined publicly to join international condemnation of Pyongyang, saying it is still assessing the evidence.
Gates said his attendance at the Singapore summit was meant to convey the message that "we are a Pacific power and intend to remain a power in the Pacific."
He said Washington and Seoul were considering "shows of force," including anti-submarine exercises, to deter behavior by North Korea he termed "even more unpredictable than usual."
"I think having a conversation with the Chinese about North Korea would be helpful," Gates said. "But we're not interested if they're not interested."
Some U.S. military officials are concerned the international community's failure to respond in a forceful way to the sinking of the Cheonan will not only embolden North Korea but will undermine U.S.-led efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program.
"They can't be looked at in isolation," one U.S. military official said of North Korea and Iran.
In both cases, China has at times stood in the way of U.S. efforts to impose tougher penalties, officials said.
Gates and other senior U.S. officials have urged China to maintain military-to-military contacts partly as a hedge against misunderstandings or accidents that could lead to confrontations.
He said nearly all of the aspects of the relationship between Washington and Beijing were moving forward "with the sole exception of the military-to-military relationship."
The goal was a relationship that "doesn't move in fits and starts and isn't affected by every change in the political weather," Gates said. He described the PLA as "reluctant to engage with us in a broad level."
Gates acknowledged that arms sales to Taiwan may be part of the reason for the PLA's posture, but he said such sales went back decades and should not have an impact on ties.
"It has not inhibited the development of the political and economic relationship," Gates said of growing interdependence between the U.S. and Chinese economies.
"If they want to single out the military side of the relationship as the place where they want to play this out, then so be it," he said.
Some Pentagon strategists have voiced alarm at what they see as China's faster-than-expected military build-up, from powerful anti-ship missiles to an advanced combat jet that may rival the premier U.S. fighter, Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 Raptor, within eight years.
Gates has sought to play down the risk, arguing that the U.S. military enjoys a lopsided advantage in fighters, warships and other big-ticket hardware. He described an open military dialogue between China and the United States as constructive and helpful.
"It helps to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings and creates opportunities for cooperation," Gates said.
(Editing by Paul Tait)