When Defense Secretary Robert Gates travels to East Asia for a round of regional security talks this week, he's expected to raise pointed objections about China's military buildup and modernization plans. But he'll do it striking a softer chord.
The approach is expected to be unlike that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld: When he spoke at the same conference in 2005, he bluntly took Beijing to task for secretively expanding its military.
This year, things are a bit different: China has been slightly more forthcoming in terms of reporting its military capabilities. And Chinese military leaders have been all the more welcoming of their US counterparts, hosting them for a number of visits and other exchanges.
Secretary Gates, known as a pragmatist since taking the Pentagon's helm in December, is likely to keep the pressure on China. He will speak Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a three-day security conference named after the Singapore hotel at which the conference takes place. A delegation from Beijing is expected to attend.
"Gates will go in a bit more modestly, but make the point that this is still of great concern," says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
That doesn't mean American defense officials aren't concerned about China's growing capabilities.
China is positioning itself to be not just a regional player and a threat to neighboring Taiwan, but instead a country with potentially far loftier goals, defense officials say. According to a new Pentagon report released Friday that compiles key changes in China's evolving military, China has expanded to 900 the number of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan – an increase of more than 100 over last year. It continues to develop its DF-31 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, a sign of the broader influence it would like to have. And it's building, expanding, or acquiring new platforms such as a "multi-role" jet fighter, a battle tank, and a guided missile frigate.
It is also developing other missile programs, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile on a new class of nuclear-powered submarines, according to the report, which is an annual assessment required by Congress.
Questions remain on whether Beijing wants to build a new aircraft carrier – signaling, potentially, a more preemptive military strategy. And just how much China spends on its military is another mystery, defense officials say. While official US estimates put its defense budget at about $43 billion, defense experts say Beijing's defense expenditures could be three times that amount. Perhaps the largest question is: What does China really want?
"This is not just a concern for the United States," said one defense official during a background briefing at the Pentagon on Friday upon release of the report. "Many aspects of China's military programs lead other nations to question China's intentions and to adjust their own behavior."
Such developments prompted Mr. Rumsfeld to go on the offensive two years ago: He turned up tensions during the 2005 security conference, openly questioning why Beijing felt the need to modernize its military. "Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: why this growing investment?"
Rumsfeld's remarks were seen as "picking on the Chinese," in the words of one analyst, and his speech served to foment tensions between the two nations. Relations had already been on edge since April 2001, when an American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and the Chinese detained more than 20 US service men and women for days.
Today, the Pentagon's view of China is still marked by concern – but the report issued last week has more of a wait-and-see tone than in years past. On Friday, Gates said he thought the Pentagon's report on China was factual and did not exaggerate the threat.
Still, Gates noted that while Beijing has been more forthcoming in recent years, he'd like to see it become more so.
"We wish that there were greater transparency, that they would talk more about what their intentions are, what their strategies are," he said.
The US and China continue to host each other for a number of high-level, military-to-military exchanges, including a visit to China earlier this month by Adm. Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command.
These kinds of exchanges are good for building relationships between the two countries, says Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. But they have another value.
"There has always been a much greater inequality about what we show the Chinese and what the Chinese show us," he says. Yet the US can send a powerful message every time it shows off its own capabilities. "We show them what we have as a deterrence," he says.