Chinese military reluctant to forge ties with US: Gates

SINGAPORE, June  3, 2010 (AFP) - US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disappointment Thursday at China's decision to call off his planned visit, saying the country's military was reluctant to engage in a dialogue with the United States.

Gates told reporters before landing in Singapore for a security conference that it was his "opinion that the PLA (People's Liberation Army) is significantly less interested in developing this relationship than the political leadership of the country".

China has denounced US arms sales to Taiwan unveiled in January, and the move by Beijing appeared to fit a familiar pattern of stepping back from exchanges with the American military to convey displeasure.

Gates defended the weapons sales, saying it was nothing new and had not affected political or economic ties with Beijing.

"The reality is these arms sales go back to the beginning of the relationship," he said, referring to the normalisation of US-China ties in 1979.

The sales have always been "carefully calibrated" to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons, he told reporters aboard his plane.

"It depends on whether the Chinese want to make a big deal out of it or not," he said. "It's been there for over a generation."

Selling weapons to Taiwan has "not inhibited the development of the political and economic relationship" with China, he added.

President Barack Obama's administration in January approved a 6.4 billion dollar arms package for Taiwan, including helicopters, Patriot missiles and mine-hunting ships.

Gates had planned to visit Beijing as part of an Asian tour this week, which kicks off with an annual security conference in Singapore attended by senior military officials including from China.

He held up as a model a decades-long military dialogue between Washington and Moscow, which he argued had helped avoid misunderstandings.

"So I'm disappointed that the PLA leadership has not seen the same potential benefits from this kind of a military-to-military relationship as their own leadership and the United States seem to think would be of benefit," he said.

Before Gates spoke on his flight to Singapore, China confirmed no arrangements had been made for him to visit Beijing.

"We attach importance to military exchanges between the two departments of defence but there are no specific arrangements yet," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters, declining to comment further.

Last week, the deputy head of the PLA general staff, Ma Xiaotian, said US arms sales to self-ruled Taiwan -- which China sees as part of its territory -- were the "foremost obstacles" to US-China military ties.

General Ma is scheduled to attend the Singapore conference, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, but US officials said Gates would not be meeting the general because they said the delegation was not at a high enough level.

The Pentagon chief said there had been hints that China would cancel the visit despite an earlier invitation, and US officials were told last week in Beijing that it "would not be a good time for me to come."

He said US-China relations were moving forward on all fronts "with the sole exception of the military-to-military relationship."

"Whether this is a result of pushback by the PLA or there is some other factor, it's very difficult for us to tell."

With North Korea's alleged sinking of a South Korean warship expected to dominate the Singapore conference, Gates acknowledged that face-to-face talks with Chinese military leaders on the crisis would have been helpful.

"But we're not interested if they're not interested," he said.