New US defence chief takes softer stance on China
Gates has less confrontational approach than Rumsfeld
The incoming head of the Pentagon appears to have a more nuanced, less confrontational view of China than outgoing defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Robert Gates was confirmed by the Senate as the new US defence secretary last Wednesday. And while his most immediate short-term task will be to try to reverse the bloody downward spiral in Iraq, Pentagon planners are also busily working to counter perceived long-term threats - and China is at the top of that list.
Mr Rumsfeld, whose last official day in office is next Sunday, was known for his sceptical, aggressive approach to China's rapid military modernisation. Last year he said: 'Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?'
Dr Gates' views on China are not well known as he has been out of government since retiring as head of the CIA in 1993.
'The China he dealt with as [CIA director] in 1991 is a very different China than he'll be dealing with today,' said David Finkelstein, director of China studies for CNA Corp, a Washington-based think-tank.
In written testimony provided in advance of his confirmation hearings, Dr Gates answered questions about China, North Korea and other Asian security issues.
For the past few years, China has increased its military spending by double-digit percentages every year. China has argued that it is normal for a growing country to expand its military, but many in Washington are, like Mr Rumsfeld, suspicious of Beijing's intentions.
Asked how he interpreted China's military build-up, Dr Gates wrote: 'It appears to me that China is building capabilities to fight short duration, high-intensity conflict on its periphery. Its near-term focus is on generating sufficient combat power to erode Taiwan's will to resist and to deter or deny effective intervention in a cross-strait conflict.'
Dr Finkelstein said: 'At least Gates has provided an opinion on China's military objectives. In the past, the secretary of defence has asked why the [People's Liberation Army] is doing what it is doing.'
On Taiwan, Dr Gates said: 'I believe China seeks to integrate Taiwan peacefully if possible. That is its policy but its capabilities suggest it is prepared to consider the use of force if peaceful efforts fail.'
Dr Finkelstein noted that Dr Gates' statement did not mention a threat to the US. 'Considering all the things Dr Gates could have said but didn't, this is a pretty reasonable assessment.'
In the past two years, the US military has steadily been increasing its co-operative activities with the PLA. Washington and Beijing have increased the frequency of officer exchanges between the countries and earlier this year the PLA observed, for the first time, a large US naval exercise in the western Pacific.
Dr Gates, while expressing caution, indicated that he was in favour of that trajectory.
'I believe that expanded military exchanges with China can be valuable but should be based on China's willingness to reciprocate,' he said.