WASHINGTON — On his final overseas trip as secretary of defense, Robert Gates will make the case to a gathering of Asian defense chiefs in Singapore that expected budget-slashing in Washington will not weaken America's commitment to Asia.
Gates was stopping in Hawaii on Tuesday for a brief visit to Pearl Harbor, where he was touring the Battleship Missouri Memorial.
Later this week, in Singapore, Gates will attend the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's most prominent security conference. Its agenda includes discussion about the challenge of Afghanistan, the implications of China's military buildup and the dangers of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The backdrop to all of that is the contrasting financial condition of the two biggest regional powers — China, with its roaring economic engine feeding a major military expansion, and the United States, mired in mounting debt.
Gates is scheduled to quit his Pentagon post on June 30, a little more than 4½ years after he entered as the successor to Donald H. Rumsfeld. He started at a time of enormous public anxiety about Iraq, where the war was going badly. Many in Congress were calling for an immediate troop withdrawal, but there was relatively little worry about Afghanistan.
He is finishing up his tenure with a far more stable — but still not peaceful — Iraq, and with congressional focus turned almost entirely on the war in Afghanistan, one that is costing much more in blood and treasure than when Gates became Pentagon chief. There were 24,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he began his tenure — just one-quarter of today's total — and the once-defeated Taliban was just beginning its comeback.
He will leave it to his designated successor, Leon Panetta, to oversee what President Barack Obama has promised will be a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan beginning in July. Decisions on the pace of that drawdown are expected shortly after Gates returns from his round-the-world trip. The last stop is in Brussels for a NATO meeting June 8-9.
Asia figures prominently in the Pentagon's strategic planning, given China's rise and its anger over U.S. support of Taiwan, and uncertainty about the impact of U.S. budget constraints on the military's ability to preserve its influence in the region.
In a series of speeches leading up to the Singapore visit, Gates emphasized America's staying power.
In a commencement address at University of Notre Dame on May 22, Gates argued that whatever budget cutting is necessary to put the country's woeful finances in order, it must not undermine the military's global reach.
"Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war," he said.
"All of these things happen mostly out of sight and out of mind to the average American, and thus are taken for granted. But they all depend on a properly armed, trained and funded American military, which cannot be taken for granted," he added.
A few days later, in an address at the American Enterprise Institute, Gates said the United States faces a budget predicament that could turn into a crisis "of credit, of confidence, of our position in the world — if not addressed soon."
In that speech he made clear that military modernization must focus on the kinds of weaponry and capability that will be needed to keep a long-term edge on China: a next-generation fighter aircraft, new aerial refueling planes to ensure long-range strike capability and a replacement fleet of nuclear-armed submarines to deter other nuclear powers like China.
"I know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war," Gates said. "But there is no doubt in my mind that the continued strength and global reach of the American military will remain the greatest deterrent against aggression and the most effective means of preserving peace in the 21st century, as it was in the 20th."
The Pentagon is undertaking a review of how its forces are aligned in Asia and how it can forge stronger partnerships with some Asian and Pacific nations. For decades the U.S. military presence in Asia has been centered on Japan and South Korea, although the U.S. also has defense treaties with Thailand and the Philippines.
Gates has advocated a strengthening of U.S. defense relations with Southeast Asian countries — a subject likely to arise during his Singapore visit.
At last year's Shangri-La conference, North Korea was a dominant topic, two months after the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
At that conference, Gates joined South Korea in trying to marshal world support for the conclusion that North Korea was to blame and should be held to account. An international investigation concluded that North Korea blew up the warship Cheonan with a torpedo — an accusation the North denies and China refused to endorse.
As the North's largest patron, China agrees with the U.S. and much of the rest of the world that Pyongyang should not have nuclear weapons, but it has been unable to compel the North to disarm. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited China last week, saying upon his return home that ties with Beijing are "sealed in blood."
North-South tensions have eased lately, and the North is not expected to be as big a topic in Singapore as it was last year.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP