WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Asia for a final time as Pentagon chief on Tuesday, looking to reassure allies the United States is committed to regional security despite tightening defense budgets and his own imminent departure.
Gates, who leaves office at the end of June, will meet his counterparts from Australia, China and other countries at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore before traveling to Brussels for meetings with officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
With China boosting its level of representation at the Shangri-La forum, Gates' meeting with Defense Minister Liang Guanglie will be watched closely for signs of further warming in civilian-military relations between the two countries after a series of high-level visits this year.
But Gates' trip is mainly an effort by the Obama administration to show the United States remains committed to the region despite planned cutbacks in military spending and a change in the top leadership at the U.S. Defense Department.
"The trip is a chance for Secretary Gates to really note how committed the senior leadership of the United States has been to Asia," a senior defense official said, pointing to the repeated trips to the region by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gates.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Gates would underscore that Obama's choice to succeed him -- CIA Director Leon Panetta -- will maintain a "continuity in U.S. policy" and that the U.S. approach has been "consistent for a long time in the region and does not depend on individuals."
Gates' departure from the Obama cabinet will be followed on October 1 by that of Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General James Cartwright also is stepping down as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Obama on Monday nominated Army General Martin Dempsey as his choice to succeed Mullen and named Admiral James Winnefeld to become vice chairman.
In addition to changes at the top of the U.S. defense establishment, U.S. allies in Asia have been unsettled by the prospect of significant cutbacks in defense spending as Obama tries to get a handle on the U.S. government's $1.4 trillion budget deficit and $14.3 trillion in debt.
BASE PLAN WORRIES
Senators Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb warned in a letter earlier this month that the Defense Department's realignment plans for U.S. military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam were "unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable" in the current budget climate.
Gates is aware of Asian concerns caused by the letter and will address them directly, a senior defense official said.
"I think that you can all rest assured that we intend to maintain a presence in the region that is geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable," the official said.
In his meeting with Liang, Gates will be looking to deepen the U.S.-China strategic security dialogue initiated between the two countries at his suggestion during a trip to Beijing in January.
The strategic security dialogue is a forum for military and civilian officials in the U.S. and Chinese governments to discuss sensitive issues like nuclear missile defense, space and cyber warfare.
The two sides held a meeting of the security dialogue during a broader bilateral gathering in Washington earlier this month, Gates would like to expand the forum.
"That continues to be an interest of his, an agenda that he's going to want to see furthered," a senior defense official said. "We now have a platform and a dialogue mechanism with the People's Republic of China to be able to talk about these issues and we now want to see it nurtured and grow," he said.
U.S.-China military ties remain fragile. The two sides only recently resumed military-to-military contacts after a break of nearly a year caused by a $6.4 billion U.S. arms deal with Taiwan.
Many in the U.S. Senate are now urging Obama to authorize a new sale of F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan. Top Chinese General Chen Bingde said during a recent visit to Washington that further U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would affect military ties between the two countries.
(Editing by Bill Trott)