WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits China next week at the start of an Asian tour, aiming to strengthen relations while also expressing concerns about China’s military buildup.
Gates, a former CIA director who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon last December, will also visit South Korea and Japan during his trip.
Gates said this week he did not consider China a military threat to America “at this point” and relations between the two countries have warmed considerably since a 2001 low point when a Chinese fighter crashed into a U.S. spy plane.
But Washington remains concerned about China’s rapid military expansion, despite Beijing’s insistence it is committed to a “peaceful rise” as its economy booms.
China’s military spending has seen double-digit growth nearly every year since the 1990s.
The United States has urged that China be clearer about why it is pouring more money into its military and says Beijing does not disclose its true defense budget — a charge China denies.
“I have concerns with a variety of the military programs that they have under way and the developmental programs. I have concern with the lack of transparency,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
“And those are the kinds of issues that we will be talking about in addition to how we can strengthen the relationship.”
Among Washington’s major concerns is China’s successful test-firing of a missile to shoot down one of its old satellites in January.
“We of course acknowledge we and the Russians did the same kind of testing, but we did it 20 years ago in a much different strategic environment,” said a senior U.S. defense official.
“We are still looking for the kind of the response from the Chinese that really helps us understand why they did it,” he said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
“We also don’t have a clear idea that they understand the kinds of level of concern that we and other space-faring nations have as a result of that test.”
The security of electronic networks is also a big U.S. concern. The Financial Times, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported in September that Chinese military hackers gained access to Pentagon computers in June.
The Pentagon has said hackers got into an unclassified e-mail system but has not said who it believes was to blame.
The U.S. official was guarded on the issue, saying China’s attitude to cyber-security was of interest. “Whether that particular issue will come up or not, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
The United States has been interested in establishing a defense hot line with China for years and a senior Chinese military official indicated in June that China backed the idea. But the project has not been realized.
The U.S. official said he expected China to sound positive about the proposal again during Gates’ visit but that it remained to be seen whether the details could be agreed on to make it happen.
Gates, who took the Pentagon helm with the main task of improving America’s fortunes in the Iraq war, arrives in China on Sunday evening and begins his official schedule on Monday morning. He is expected to meet senior Chinese defense and military officials as well as President Hu Jintao.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on Thursday Beijing attached great importance to Gates’ visit.
“We hope the visit will be good for building mutual trust between the two militaries and between the two countries,” he said.
Later in the week, Gates moves on to Seoul and Tokyo, where he said he would “touch base with two valued friends of the United States, going back five decades, and two strong partners in the war on terror.”
Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck in Beijing