Gates criticizes Chinese military for blocking talks in Beijing

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; 12:17 PM

SINGAPORE -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday accused China's military of impeding relations with the Pentagon, taking exception to its unwillingness to invite him to Beijing during his trip to Asia this week.

Shortly before he arrived in Singapore for a regional security conference, Gates told reporters there was a clear split between China's political leaders, whom he said want stronger military ties with Washington, and the People's Liberation Army, which he said does not.

"I think they are reluctant to engage with us on a broad level," he said. "The PLA is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China."

Beijing's political and economic relations with Washington have gradually improved in recent years, as the emerging global superpower and the established one have tried to come to terms with each other. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner led a delegation of 200 U.S. officials to China. President Obama also visited Beijing in November.

But military cooperation has lagged, a source of frustration for Pentagon officials. They say that communication with the People's Liberation Army needs to improve to deal with regional crises -- such as South Korea's accusation that one of its warships was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine last month -- to broader strategic issues such as the long-term buildup of China's military forces. Washington has also been seeking China's support -- without much success -- in trying to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The primary obstacle in the relationship, according to officials on both sides, is the continuation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.

Gates visited Beijing in November 2007 as defense secretary under former president George W. Bush's administration. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon announced that it would sell Patriot missile upgrades to Taiwan, prompting China to cancel a scheduled port call by a U.S. aircraft carrier and cut other military ties.

After a gradual warming period, Gates had been hoping for a return visit to China this summer. But after Washington in January announced the sale of another arms package to Taiwan, this one worth $6.4 billion, Beijing objected again and decided to give the stiff arm to Gates on his Asia trip.

On Thursday, Gates told reporters that China needed to get over its attitude, noting that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been a cornerstone of U.S. policy since Washington normalized relations with Beijing in 1979. "It's been there for over a generation," he said.

Beijing has not closed the door entirely with the Pentagon. Last month, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, joined the U.S. delegation to Beijing and met with Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff for the People's Liberation Army.

But in a sign of how cool relations remain, Gates will not meet with any Chinese officials this weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major annual security conference in Singapore. He will, however, meet with military and political leaders from South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, India, Singapore and New Zealand.

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