By Craig Whitlock
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A08
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates departed for Asia on Wednesday but had to drop a big country from his itinerary after China, still smarting over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, gave him the cold shoulder.
Gates had been hoping for months to visit Beijing this summer, a destination that took on added importance at the Pentagon after North Korea -- which sees China as its closest ally and diplomatic protector -- was accused last month of sinking a South Korean warship with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors.
Aides to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had confidently predicted that Gates would be able to go to Beijing after meetings she held there last month. "I think you will see one of the take-aways over the course of the next couple of weeks, that suddenly Chinese friends might have time for Secretary Gates's visit," an official told reporters as Clinton flew back to Washington.
But Beijing declined to extend an invitation. Pentagon officials said no specific reason was given. But they said they assumed China was still annoyed by the Obama administration's announcement in January that it would approve $6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
Although U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are hardly new, they are considered a long-standing policy irritant by Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province. Beijing suspended military-to-military exchanges with Washington in 2007 after the Bush administration approved a separate set of arms sales to Taiwan.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates was frustrated by the Chinese response in both cases. "He just doesn't believe that a relationship of this importance can exist in fits and starts," Morrell said. "It can't be derailed by bumps in the road that will inevitably come up."
China has cooled its military relationship with the Pentagon since January but has not cut ties entirely. Last month, Adm. Robert Willard, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, met Chinese counterparts in Beijing when he joined the delegation headed by Clinton.
The first stop on Gates's trip will be Singapore, where he will attend a regional security conference. Then he will travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, to try to fortify U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan, many of which cross Central Asia. He will visit London to meet with leaders in the new British government, then stop in Brussels for talks with NATO allies.