Inside the U.S.-China meeting in Singapore

Posted By Josh Rogin 

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SINGAPORE — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie held a 55-minute meeting Friday behind closed doors on the sidelines of the IISS Shangri-La Security Dialogue. Both sides claimed progress in U.S.-China military relations, while largely avoiding contentious issues such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and growing competition in Southeast Asia.

Your humble Cable guy was in the room for the first 5 minutes before being ushered out by security, and heard both leaders praise the resumption of military-to-military ties, which began again last May following the People Liberation Army’s early 2010 decision to sever ties in response to the United States’ $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

“President Hu and President Obama both believe that our military to military ties are an underdeveloped part of our relationship between the United States and China. In recent months our two countries have made some progress in toward rectifying this imbalance by jointly identifying areas of cooperation,” Gates said at the start of the meeting.  “As I leave office at the end of this month, I do so believing that our military relationship is on a more positive trajectory.”

“It is critically important to maintain a dialogue in areas where we disagree, so we can have greater clarity about each other’s intentions,” Gates continued.  “Together we can show the world the benefits that arise when great nations collaborate on matters of shared interest.”

Liang struck a similarly positive note, saying that, “since the beginning of this year… the mil-to-mil relations and technical cooperation between the two militaries have made some positive progress.”

According to three senior U.S. defense officials who briefed reporters on the rest of the meeting, both military leaders spent the bulk of the time reviewing points of agreement and pledging cooperation on areas of shared strategic interest — piracy, disaster response, and North Korea — while avoiding areas of conflict.

“Of course, there were areas of disagreement raised, but they were acknowledged and moved on from,” one of the officials who was in the room reported.

For example, when Liang raised the issue of future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as Chinese leaders do in every meeting, Gates gave a clear but curt one line response.

“We know each other’s points on Taiwan well,” Gates told Liang, according to the officials.

And when Liang criticized what he referred to as voices in the United States that China believes are hyping the Chinese military threat, Gates responded that there are anti-U.S. voices in China as well, but that on neither side do the negative voices represent the views of each country’s leadership.

“The reality is that some will always oppose this relationship moving forward, but it is our responsibility to keep it moving forward,” Gates said.

Gates also stressed that incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will continue the effort to advance U.S.-China military ties. But Gates won’t leave the issue totally behind.

“He said he hopes to continue to monitor the forward progress in retirement, with a fishing line in hand,” one defense official reported.

Gates also noted in the meeting that Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will travel to China in July, a reciprocal visit following PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde’s visit to Washingtonlast month.

The cordial U.S.-China exchanges could turn more adversarial as the conference goes on. Gates speaks Saturday and is expected to lay out a range of new ideas for how the United States plans to increase its military involvement in Southeast Asia. The moves are widely seen as a response to growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. Liang speaks Sunday.

The discussion was only one of four bilateral meetings Gates held Friday. He also met with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, Singaporean Permanent Secretary for DefenseChiang Chie Foo, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib bin Tun Hj Abdul Razak.

The Cable asked the senior defense officials what Kitazawa had to say about Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s bombshell announcement this week that he would resign his post.

“That was not discussed,” one official said.

ALL CONTENTS ©2011 THE SLATE GROUP, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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