China's military is a roadblock to better overall relations between the United States and China, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
"Nearly all of the aspects of the relationship between the United States and China are moving forward in a positive direction, with the sole exception of the military-to-military relationship," Gates said, en route to Asia for three days of security talks.
The gathering of regional defense chiefs is dominated by the sinking of a South Korean warship. South Korea and the United States blame North Korea, and are leaning on China to apply pressure on its communist ally.
Gates said North Korea "is more unpredictable than usual," and that the U.S. and South Korea are considering whether to expand joint military exercises in a show of solidarity.
Gates was disinvited from a visit to China tentatively planned for next week. The visit was seen as the capstone to Gates' three-year effort to broaden military relations with China on the rough model of U.S.-Soviet defense cooperation. Gates suggested that the Chinese People's Liberation Army got cold feet.
"Whether this is a result of pushback from the PLA or there is some other factor is very difficult for us to tell," Gates said. Later he added that in his opinion, "the PLA is significantly less interested," in developing broader ties to the United States than is China's political leadership.
China gave no explanation Thursday for why it rebuffed Gates.
A spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry told a news briefing Thursday that "we attach importance to military exchanges" but there were no specific arrangements yet.
China's defense ministry has not commented.
Chinese leaders are angry over the Obama administration's decision in January to go ahead with arms sales to Taiwan worth $6.4 billion. China cut military ties with the United States, and this particular connection remains in limbo despite recent discussions among senior U.S. and Chinese military officials.
China is also angry over President Barack Obama's decision to meet with the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of trying to separate Tibet from China. The countries have also tangled this year over trade disputes and cyberspying accusations from Google Inc.
Gates suggested the arms sale issue is a dodge for a military establishment uncomfortable with a wider opening to the United States. Similar arms sales date back decades, Gates said.
"It's been there for over a generation and it has not inhibited the development of the political and economic relationship," Gates said. "If they want to single out the military side of the relationship as the place where they want to point this out, then so be it."
Gates plans to use an address to Asian defense officials in Singapore to argue that the United States and China need to put defense ties on a firmer footing. The United States is skeptical about China's need for its fast-expanding military and Gates has said that the two major Pacific powers cannot risk being in the dark about one another's intentions.
China is not sending a high-level delegate to the annual defense conference in Singapore this weekend, so Gates will not even meet with Chinese officials there. He will see defense officials from every other major Asian power.
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