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US Defense Secretary Sounds Softer Note on China's Military Build-up

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has softened his county's rhetoric about China's military buildup, telling a regional security conference in Singapore that he sees "reason to be optimistic" about the U.S.-China relationship. Trish Anderton filed this report from Jakarta.

Gates told the Asian security conference that the United States is still concerned about what he called the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military spending.

But Gates's tone Saturday was softer than that of his blunt-talking predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who expressed concern over China's military buildup. Gates emphasized the common ties between the world's only superpower and the rising Asian giant, and expressed hope for better mutual understanding.

"We have increased military-to-military contacts between all levels of our militaries … As we gain experience in dealing with each other, relationships can be forged that will build trust over time," he said.

China has said its defense spending will grow by nearly 18 percent in 2007. A Pentagon report, however, concluded last month that Beijing spends two or three times more on defense than it has publicly acknowledged.

Speaking after Gates, Chinese Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng told the conference that Beijing is telling the truth about its budget. He said the increased spending is for items such as uniforms, training, and higher salaries and pensions.

But Zhang, too, appeared to reach out in cooperation, saying the two countries would set up a hotline to improve communication between their militaries.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the host of the conference, said most Asian countries do not see China's spending as a threat to regional security.

Nevertheless, Singapore and other Asian nations want a continued U.S. military presence in the region as a guarantee of stability and a counterweight to rising Chinese influence.

Secretary Gates sought to reassure the audience that the U.S. would not be distracted from its responsibilities in Asia by the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We are an Asian power with significant and long-term political, economic and security interests. Our commitments elsewhere notwithstanding, we will fulfill our commitments in Asia," he said.

He called on Asian nations to increase their aid to Afghanistan and the former Soviet states of Central Asia, arguing that if those countries were allowed to flounder, they could become breeding grounds for terrorism.