US Defense Secretary Robert Gates will encourage engagement with China and avoid public criticism of its military build-up at an Asia security conference this weekend, a senior US official said.
The Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld had used the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to call for China to be more transparent about its defense expansion and intentions.
Gates, too, has sought more clarity from Beijing on its aims, and the Pentagon's recently released annual report on China's military power highlighted a host of areas where it is expanding its military capability.
But the senior defense official said the plan to tread softly in Singapore reflected a recognition that China, which will be represented at the meeting by a high-powered delegation under Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng (章沁生), director of military intelligence for the People's Liberation Army, has demonstrated some willingness to discuss issues of concern.
"We said what we can say in the China military power report," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said en route to Singapore on Thursday. "We don't see any reason in getting bogged down in a discussion of that report during this meeting."
Gates will argue in his speech on Saturday that the US remains actively engaged in Asia despite its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"One of the key elements of the speech, if not the leitmotif of the speech, is we are an Asian power," the official said.
"We are in Asia, we intend to remain in Asia and suggestions that we have allowed our current distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan to in some way lessen our commitment to Asia and reduce the level of activity here are without foundation."
While advertising the ways Washington is engaged in the region through military, humanitarian and other missions, Gates will also call on Asian countries to increase their involvement in Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan, where US and NATO forces are battling a Taliban resurgence.
"We are taking a lot of the burden right now and we welcome opportunities for others to share part of that burden," the official said, suggesting assistance in economic development but offering few other details.
Sponsored by London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, the five-year-old Shangri-La talks have become Asia's premier security forum.
Gates, who took over at the Pentagon in December, will meet privately with defense ministers and other senior leaders on the sidelines of the conference.
bone of contention
The meeting comes days after Beijing bristled over the Pentagon's latest report to the US Congress, saying it was exaggerated and an interference in Chinese domestic affairs.
The Pentagon said Beijing was maintaining its traditional focus on Taiwan. But it stressed that China was also looking beyond Taiwan in making and buying weapons and crafting strategy.