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National Security / defense

What Gates Is Saying on His Last International Trip as Defense Secretary

Robert Gates chats with media outlets en route to Singapore for his last international trip as Defense secretary. Catch up with the latest from his official Air Force plane.

On Military Relations With Asia

Gates will meet with his counterparts from Japan, China, Australia, and other countries at the Asian security conference this weekend.

 
  • Gates cited significant progress in strengthening the military-to-military relationships with Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea during the last few years of the Asian security dialogues.
  • “I think the general recognition on the part of all the countries over the past several years that their own security environment is evolving, their desire to adjust their own positions accordingly,” Gates said. The U.S. needs to be “flexible” as it develops its relations with these countries.
  • “What I will largely talk about at the conference is the evolution and the changes in these positions and... where we are and moving to the future,” Gates said. “...One thing that has been brought home to me again in this job is how many countries around the world truly do consider the United States the indispensable nation. We are often the catalyst not only for bilateral relationships, but for multilateral -- the development of multilateral cooperation. And we are willing to partner with the people in these things.”
  • U.S. presence and influence in Asia is a very cost-effective approach: “Many of the things that we're doing in Asia in building these relationships are actually pretty cost-effective -- training, exercises, rotations of forces, and so on are -- and the use of our Navy, our air assets moving from place to place. I think these are all cost-effective ways of enhancing our influence, but also letting these countries know that we're a reliable partner and that we can be counted on.”

On China

Gates was in China in January to jump-start the stalled military-to-military cooperation when his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao was marred by what appeared to be a surprise flight of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter. This fueled fears in Washington that Beijing is developing stealth warplanes and other sophisticated weapons as a way of one day challenging U.S. dominance in the Pacific.

  • “[China's] military modernization is proceeding apace. They are clearly working on capabilities that are of concern to us in terms of denial of access, particularly with respect to our aircraft carriers, the development of long-range accurate cruise and ballistic anti-ship missiles,” Gates said. “I seem to have some recollection of them having a demonstration of a stealth aircraft, fighter aircraft. I think, clearly, some of their work in cyber and anti-satellites. So, you know, my sense of it is that they are -- and in their efforts, frankly, to build a blue-water navy.
  • “The Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience and they do not intend to try and compete with us across the full range of military capabilities.  But I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence.”
  • Gen. Chen Bingde, the head of China’s armed forces, visited Washington earlier this month. “We're very satisfied with the progress of the relationship,” Gates said. “My first visit to China in this job was in the fall of 2007. I laid out a fairly ambitious agenda for developing our military-to-military relationship. We've obviously hit snags and obstacles along the way, but I think we're in a pretty good place now, pretty realistic.”

On Taiwan

China cut off its military ties with the U.S. last year when the Obama administration signed off on the sale of $6.4 billion of military equipment to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade Chinese province. The status of the island nation, which the U.S. has promised to defend from any Chinese attempt to conquer it, has remained a source of tension.

  • “We have this discussion [about Taiwan] in virtually every meeting that we have with the Chinese. I would say that I think under both the Bush and Obama administrations, we have tried to thread the needle pretty carefully in terms of Taiwan's defensive capabilities, but at the same time being aware of China's sensitivities."
  • "I think both administrations have done this very thoughtfully and very carefully. By the same token, there is -- just as the Chinese are very open with us about their concerns, we are also open with them about our obligations.”
  • Gates declined to comment on calls in Congress for a new sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.

On Joint Chiefs Selection

President Obama tapped Army Gen. Martin Dempsey to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even though he recently took a post as the Army’s chief of staff. Having served as the nation's No. 2 military officer since August 2007, Marine Gen. James Cartwright was believed to be the front-runner to take the post when Adm. Michael Mullen retires this summer.

  • "I'm clearly not going to get into personalities or the recommendations that I made with the president," Gates said. "I would say that I've been in a dialogue with the president over the succession issues for at least a year."
  • "I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision, for example, the Afghan piece, are completely wrong -- have nothing to do with whatsoever," Gates continued, referring to speculation that Cartwright was not chosen due to his dissent during deliberations on a proposed 2009 troop surge. According to accounts of Cartwright in Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, Cartwright offered independent advice to President Obama and drafted a separate plan calling for fewer reinforcements.

On Afghanistan

Gates spoke with NPR about his advice to Obama about troop drawdowns scheduled in July:

  • “[President Obama] needs to, as I've put it, kind of bookend this thing in terms of announcing something in July, but then being able to say, and by such and such a time, I expect to have a certain number of troops out.”
  • As for any more concrete details on timing of such a process, and its impact on the battlefield, Gates said only: “Well, I've still got a few weeks to keep my counsel.”

On His Tenure

The only Defense secretary asked to remain in his position by a newly elected president, the 67-year-old is finally heading "back to his beloved lakefront home in the other Washington, north of Seattle" after retirement, Politico reports. Gates presided over surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan, spent almost three decades as an intelligence professional, and served as president of Texas A&M University.

  • Gates will have a "life" after retirement: "I think it would be very unseemly to leave and then turn right around and start doing op-eds and talk shows and things like that. I think I need to, as my kids would say, get a life."
  • He plans to write a memoir of his Pentagon years that will “most important, acknowledge where I think I made a mistake, or where I was wrong.”
  • “I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors -- [Robert] McNamara, [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Caspar Weinberger] and Charles E. Wilson. The country will have been at war -- in two wars -- every single day that I was secretary of Defense.... I have been the secretary of Defense longer than the Civil War lasted, longer than World War II lasted.... I’ve dealt with a Republican administration, and a Democratic administration. I’ve dealt with a Democratic Congress, I’ve dealt with a mixed Congress.... I think I have some interesting things to say.”
  • But don't expect to race to the bookstore anytime soon, though, as Gates said his memoir won't be published before the November 2012 election. "That would make it into a campaign book," he said. "I want to be absolutely fair. I could not write books that exposed all kinds of confidences... and that attack people that I’ve worked closely with.... I don’t... want to write one of these books, ‘If they’d only listened to me.’ Because, truth is, I feel like both of these presidents have listened to me.”
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