By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 1:02 AM
TOKYO - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday invoked threats from North Korea and China's modernizing military as reasons to strengthen the U.S. alliance with Japan and to keep U.S. forces strong in the Pacific.
Speaking at Keio University, Gates also said he was worried about a "disconnect" between China's civilian and military leadership. While he was in Beijing earlier this week, the country's military conducted the first flight test of its new stealth fighter jet on the same day as Gates met with President Hu Jintao. Hu told Gates that he didn't know the test had taken place.
"On the whole, I think this is something of a worry," Gates said, citing a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 and the menacing of a U.S. Navy surveillance ship in 2009 as other examples. Still, Gates added, "in the larger sense of who controls the Chinese military and who is the ultimate authority, there is no doubt in my mind that it is President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership of that country."
Gates reiterated a proposal for a dialogue that would, for the first time, group China's military and civilian leaders with their U.S. counterparts as a way to help Beijing bridge its gaps. Hu is coming to Washington next week for his second and last summit with President Obama.
In pointed comments directed to both Pyongyang and Beijing, Gates also told an audience of students that, without a strong U.S. military presence in Japan, North Korea's military could be even more "outrageous" and "China might behave more assertively towards its neighbors."
Gates also said he would like to see Japan's security forces take on a wider role in the region and pushed Japan and South Korea's military to work more closely together to deal with North Korea's provocations.
In an interview Thursday, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa committed Japan to work in unprecedented ways with the U.S. military - such as providing logistical support for a potential war on the Korean Peninsula or undertaking evacuations of civilians there.
"The basic principle of Japan is to pursue peace," Kitazawa said. "But we also need to have measures to avoid being left behind."
Gates is on the last day of a five-day trip to Asia that has focused on coming up with a strategy to deal with a nuclear-armed and increasingly erratic North Korea and also reestablishing high-level military talks with China. He spent three days in Beijing, two in Tokyo and was set Friday to hold several hours of meetings in Seoul before heading back to the United States.
In Beijing, Gates's message was that the United States wanted better ties with the People's Liberation Army in order to avoid the miscalculations that can often lead to war. Gates also aimed at convincing China to do more to rein in North Korea, which in the past year has been blamed in two attacks on the South that killed 50 people.
He put the Chinese on notice that North Korea would, within five years, become a "direct threat" to the interests of the United States as it develops nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In his speech Friday, Gates noted that Chinese technological advances in cyber- and anti-satellite warfare posed a "potential challenge to the ability of our forces to operate and communicate in this part of the Pacific." He drew a parallel between China and the Soviet Union - saying that during the Cold War, the talks between Washington and Moscow were important in ensuring peace.
Then Gates, as he has in the past, followed immediately by saying that "the Cold War is mercifully long over and the circumstances with China today are vastly different." Still, his persistent framing of Washington's ties with Beijing within the context of the Cold War underscore the complex nature of U.S. relations with China.
Gates also put Beijing on notice that the United States completely rejected China's view that it can claim an exclusive economic zone stretching 200 miles from its coast. Beijing contends that U.S. naval vessels should not be allowed to conduct operations there.
"One area where it's impossible to compromise" with China, Gates said, "is the freedom of navigation, the freedom of the global commons for commerce, trade, for shipping."