By THOM SHANKER
Published: June 3, 2011
SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pledged Saturday that the United States would sustain its military presence and diplomatic involvement in Asia, as he sought to calm regional worries about the potential for a new isolationism brought on by fiscal difficulties at home.
In a speech before an audience of Asian defense ministers and military commanders, which included a high-ranking delegation from China, Mr. Gates declared that Washington would not step back from its responsibilities to defend allies, counterbalance regional threats and assist in humanitarian disasters.
He acknowledged the grim economic and political realities facing the American government, saying that “fighting two protracted and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has strained the U.S. military’s ground forces, and worn out the patience and appetite of the American public for similar interventions in the future.”
Even so, he said, “We recognize that the American defense engagement — from our forward deployed forces to exercises with regional partners — will continue to play an indispensable role in the stability of the region.”
Even as it sustains overseas military bases and continues exercises with allies, the Pentagon also has plans for “establishing a defense posture across the Asia-Pacific that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable,” Mr. Gates said.
He stressed the unwavering commitment to allies like Japan and South Korea, which are closest to the North Korean threat, and he promised that the Defense Department was enhancing the American presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The defense secretary’s speech, to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was cast in the expected diplomatic language and did not specifically cite the risks posed by China’s expanding military capabilities. That was, in part, because of the presence of China’s minister of defense, Gen. Liang Guanglie.
Mr. Gates made certain to strike a conciliatory tone with China, praising Washington and Beijing for working together “to build a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.”
But even as the Pentagon complies with an order by President Obama to cut $400 billion in military spending by 2023, Mr. Gates said that the Defense Department would find money for “air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
“Many of those key modernization programs would address one of the principal security challenges we see growing over the horizon: The prospect that new and disruptive technologies and weapons could be employed to deny U.S. forces access to key sea routes and lines of communications,” he said.
China is the lone Asian power with an extensive program to develop exactly those kinds of antiaccess weapons.
During a closed-door session late Friday, Mr. Gates and General Liang both cited the progress in enhancing relations between the two nations’ militaries, according to a senior Defense Department official, who described the conversation as cordial.
The official said the Chinese delegation had raised the expected complaints about American arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province, and had objected to missions by American reconnaissance ships and aircraft in international space off China’s coast.
Mr. Gates said in his speech that the Navy and Air Force were preparing over the coming weeks to release a new “air-sea battle” strategy, an effort intended “to ensure that America’s military will continue to be able to deploy, move and strike over great distances in defense of our allies and vital interests.”
He also said the United States and Australia were discussing increased naval cooperation, along with the potential for expanded American access to improved Australian bases within reach of the Indian Ocean.
And the United States and Singapore, he said, were examining programs to store supplies in Singapore, in particular in response to natural disasters; to expand the number of American warships making stops here; and to increase joint training programs.
“In the coming years, the United States military is also going to be increasing its port calls, naval engagements and multilateral training efforts with multiple countries throughout the region,” Mr. Gates said. “These types of activities not only broaden and deepen our relationship with friends and allies, but help build partner capacity to address regional challenges.”
When taken together, Mr. Gates concluded, “all of these developments demonstrate the commitment of the United States to sustaining a robust military presence in Asia — one that underwrites stability by supporting and reassuring allies while deterring, and if necessary defeating, potential adversaries.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 4, 2011, on page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Won’t Become Isolationist, Gates Tells Worried Asian Leaders.