China stares past Gates in the Pacific
By Peter J Brown
United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Hanoi in early October
for the first-ever Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus 8 (ASEAN-Plus 8)
defense ministers' meetings at a time when there was considerable discord in
At these meetings, the ASEAN nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos,
Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) were
joined by the "Plus 8" nations - Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea,
New Zealand, Russia and the US.
Gates found himself on a stormy sea in Hanoi. Yes, he accepted an invitation to
visit China in 2011, but as the time draws near for
his departure from the Pentagon, the significance of his visit there is likely
to diminish greatly.
Before Gates leaves his post - probably next summer - he will face mounting
skepticism and criticism both at home and abroad. Gates is now part of a team
undergoing a radical change, including the selection of a controversial
successor to General James Jones as US President Barack Obama's national
In Asia, the US war in Afghanistan is reaching a critical milestone and China
is continuing its pursuit of a rapid modernization of its military while
testing the borders of its neighbors; this is keeping Gates on his toes.
Gates remains a firm backer of the Japanese in its recent showdown with China
over a detained captain of a fishing vessel, and while both Japan and China
made an attempt to improve relations in Hanoi, there is no sign of a truly
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie's decision to lecture Japan's Defense
Minister Toshimi Kitazawa about how the incident near the disputed Diaoyu
Islands between the Chinese fishing trawler and the Japanese Coast Guard
demonstrated that Japan still does a poor job of handling sensitive issues
affecting both countries, and is proof of a lasting chill. Liang wanted to
remind Japan that Japan needs to resolve these and other matters in a way that
ensures that China's approval will be forthcoming. Despite any reports to the
contrary, China is obviously still angered by the "illegal detention" by Japan
of the Chinese fishing boat captain in September. 
This lecture was taking place just as China was issuing a terse announcement
about its new maritime enforcement policies. Sun Zhihui, director of the State
Oceanic Administration revealed that China intends "to strengthen patrols and
supervision in order to protect the country's maritime rights and interests".
At the same time, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a meeting in Brussels informed
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan that China had no plans to relinquish its
claim to the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku by Japan) which the Chinese have
always depicted as "an inherent part of the Chinese territory".
"The Diaoyu Islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times," Wen told
This spat has disturbed Gates for months. So when Gates stepped to the podium
at the Vietnam National University in early October, he was mindful that the
Chinese military was well-represented at the meeting, and that China was still
not ready to set aside its important differences with Japan.
Gates informed his audience, "Asia is home to some of the most dynamic, rapidly
evolving democratic nations in the world - especially here in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian nations sit astride key global trade routes, are home to a
diverse ethnic and religious population, are playing a leading role in
promoting Asian regional institutions, and, increasingly, are stepping forward
as vital security partners on a range of regional and global challenges. This
is why President Obama has made engagement with our Southeast Asian partners a
priority of our policy in Asia."
Gates identified several "core issues" including trade, natural disasters,
territorial disputes, terrorism and anti-piracy that "can best be addressed
through strong multilateral cooperation. Strong bilateral relationships -
amongst all Pacific nations - are critical and they remain critical on their
own. But they also build the mutual trust and familiarity necessary for
multilateral institutions and initiatives to work - the two are mutually
reinforcing. And, increasingly we find that relying exclusively on bilateral
relationships is not enough - we need multilateral institutions in order to
confront the most important security challenges in this region."
Gates anticipated that his call for ASEAN to recognize the value and benefits
of "multilateral institutions and initiatives" would not be well received by
China which has avoided anything that might engender this sort of framework and
thus interfere with their preference for more fragmented, bilateral
China had a little surprise for Gates, however, in the form of an expressed
willingness to "actively get involved in the building of a relevant security
mechanism ... to contribute to regional peace and stability," said China's
Defense Minister Liang Guanglie.
"So far there is no settled framework for security cooperation in the region
due to the complicated situation here with so many countries and so many
interests and concerns," said Ma Zhengang, director of the China Arms Control
and Disarmament Association. "But China welcomes a fair security mechanism
[that] goes in line with China's demand for a peaceful environment to enable
continuous prosperity." 
The mechanism that China envisions is very much a work in progress, and may
only offer a veneer of civility to disputes down the road.
The first question posed to Gates following his speech was an indicator that
ASEAN is concerned about the US too, and not just the Chinese.
Gates was asked, "ASEAN highly [values] cooperation with the United States for
security, stability and peace in Southeast Asia. But how can we be sure that
the United States won't just walk away when their national interests are served
in a certain way?"
The questioner did not specify an assumed US commitment to Vietnam alone, by
the way, after Gates had spoken very frankly about the very promising prospects
for US-Vietnamese cooperation going forward. Gates immediately attempted to
remove doubts about the reliability and dependability of the US.
"We have a presence in Asia. We border the Pacific Ocean. We have long-term
interests here and we have friendships that go back many, many decades," Gates
replied. "I think all Asia can be confident that the United States intends to
remain engaged in Asia as we have been for so many scores of years before and
that we intend to be an active participant not only in economic and political
matters, but also in defense and security matters." 
Gates is accustomed to mounting skepticism, both in Southeast Asia and back in
Washington. He has always been confronted by critics as well, including retired
US Air Force (USAF) Major General Charles Dunlap who blasted Gates in
mid-September for steadily increasing the size of the US Army while damaging
the USAF on his watch. Dunlap stated that Gates had greatly contributed to the
reduction of the USAF's "size, reputation, and combat power".
Dunlap raised questions about Gates, and his climb all the way to the top of
the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prior to taking the helm at the US
Defense Department - even retelling an old tale about how Gates was once
planted in the USAF by the Central Intelligence Agency. 
Some of this was old news. Old or not, Beijing might find the notion that the
USAF is a hollow force and a second-rate combat power difficult to accept, as
Dunlap and others suggest.
After all, the Chinese have watched closely as the USAF conducted and sustained
extensive air operations including countless long-range bombing missions over
Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. The USAF's rapidly growing fleet of
unmanned aircraft - thousands are in service - and its determination to extend
its reach aggressively into space with all sorts of platforms such as the X-37B
are compelling Beijing to rethink its use and positioning of airpower. The
impression left by USAF F-22's flying along China's red line in the Yellow Sea
and East China Sea during recent exercises in the area cannot be overlooked
The Chinese are certainly well aware that certain USAF officers remain unhappy
with Gates following a speech that he gave in April 2008 at Maxwell-Gunter Air
Force Base in Alabama.
"This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of
changes for our military establishment that until recently was almost
completely oriented toward winning the big battles and the big wars. Based on
my experience at the CIA, at Texas A&M [university] and now the Department
of Defense, it is clear to me that the culture of any large organization takes
a long time to change, and the really tough part is preserving those elements
of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it,
while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and
achieving the mission," said Gates. "My concern is that our services are still
not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the
His speech in Alabama combined with his attempt to shift his cost-cutting
campaign into high gear - or at least a higher gear - his call for reducing the
number of generals and other senior officers in the Pentagon. This and his
capping of the number of advanced US F-22 fighter aircraft built by the US have
kept Gates in the hot seat for a very long time.
China may be perplexed not just by USAF officers who criticize Gates, but also
by the downgrading of the USAF by the US media as it covered the US military's
actions in East Asia in recent months. When the US annoyed China by planning to
deploy an aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, or moved key US Navy ships during
recent North Korean missile tests, for example, these events ensured that the
media coverage was overwhelmingly US Navy-centric. The USAF was rarely covered
China cannot rule out the possibility that this is a deliberate ploy on the
part of Gates and his team in the Pentagon at this time because the US has
worked so hard lately to coordinate air and naval components as part of its
emerging "AirSea Battle" master plan.
Regardless, China has an easy task when it comes to detecting that Gates is
feeling even more heat at home as the result of his supposed comments about
Obama's new National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, who replaced Jones just a
few days before Gates departed for Hanoi.
Gates, according to Washington Post super-reporter Bob Woodward, is quite
critical of Donilon, who is described as a longtime Washington insider and one
of Obama's closest advisers. In fact, according to Woodward's new book Obama's
Wars, not only does Gates doubt Donilon's level of understanding of the
US military, but Gates told Jones that Donilon would be a "disaster" as Obama's
national security adviser. 
Gates finds himself in full damage control mode as a result and has repeatedly
gone out of his way to paint a very different picture of his relationship with,
and opinion of, Donilon. Gates said that he welcomed Obama's decision to
appoint Donilon as the next national security adviser.
"Tom brings a wealth of experience and seasoning into this critical position,
particularly from his current tenure as deputy national security advisor. As I
can attest from firsthand experience, Tom has been in one of the toughest jobs
in Washington and done it well," said Gates in his official comments on
Donilon's appointment. "I value the good working relationship I have with Tom
and the rest of the Obama national security team and look forward to continuing
our collaboration in tackling the many pressing security challenges facing our
China has watched others in the top post in the Pentagon who have encountered
vocal and open opposition and then fallen quickly from favor. Some have fallen
faster than others. China has also observed the inter-service rivalry which
continuously surfaces in the US military.
China recognized months ago that the most powerful US military officer charged
with keeping a constant eye on China is not Gates, but US Navy Admiral Robert
Willard in Hawaii, who serves as head of the US Pacific Command.
All the ASEAN defense ministers who gathered in Hanoi are well aware of him, so
what Willard said recently about the US Navy's size mattered. Willard said that
if the number of US Navy combatants fell sharply below the 280 now in service,
it would cause him to become seriously concerned.
Gates made no mention of Willard or the US Navy's ship count when he answered
the critical question which was posed to him a few days later about the
dependability of the US over time.
Adequate number of ships or not, Willard will go on forging a partnership
between the US and China - not having China as an enemy is Willard's stated
goal. China has been making that objective very difficult to achieve lately.
"We've not been particularly encouraged by the character of what's developed,"
said Willard. 
When Gates walks out of his office for the last time, feeling the heat or not,
it will be up to Willard to sort it all out so the US can respond quickly.
Willard has his hands full for sure.