Image: Robert Gates
AP
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks with China's Deputy Chief of the People's Liberation Army staff, Ma Xiaotian, at the opening session of the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on Friday in Singapore.
updated 5/30/2008 9:45:13 PM ET 2008-05-31T01:45:13

Myanmar's obstruction of international efforts to help cyclone victims cost "tens of thousands of lives," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday, reflecting the widespread frustration with the military government there.

With U.S. ships off the coast of Myanmar poised to leave because they have been blocked from delivering assistance to the ravaged country, Gates said the U.S. will continue to try to get aid in. In a speech to the annual Shangri-la conference on international security, he said the U.S. has not had problems helping other countries in natural disasters while still respecting their sovereignty.

With Myanmar, he said, "the situation has been very different — at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. Many other countries besides the United States also have felt hindered in their efforts."

The growing displeasure with the Myanmar government has permeated the conference, coming up in nearly all conversations between leaders from around the world. Military officials have indicated that they are about to withdraw the U.S. Navy ships within days, since it does not appear that the Myanmar government will change its mind and allow the vessels to unload their supplies.

Comments on next president
In a wide-ranging speech, Gates also looked ahead to the next White House administration, saying the new U.S. president will inherit the worrisome issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions but will continue America's enduring commitment to Asia.

While he said he could not make specific policy predictions for the next administration, Gates told the annual Shangri-la conference on international security that there will be "no change in our drive to temper North Korea's ambitions, a policy not possible without China's valued cooperation."

And despite the often divergent views of the Republican and Democratic candidates, Gates said he is confident that the strong U.S. ties to Asia will continue "no matter which political party occupies the White House next year."

"Any speculation in the region about the United States losing interest in Asia strikes me as either preposterous, or disingenuous, or both," he said.

Friendly and warning words for China
The reference to China was one of several in a speech that sounded two distinct tones on the communist giant — at times extending a friendly hand and at others offering a subtle but somber warning.

He first noted that relations with China have improved, and that leaders have begun a series of discussions on issues to "help us understand one another better, and to avoid possible misunderstanding."

A long-sought direct telephone link between the U.S. and China has finally been established, and Gates said he used it recently to speak with the defense minister.

On the other hand, however, Gates took unmistakable jabs at China — without mentioning its name — including in calls for greater openness about military modernization in Asia.

The Pentagon in recent annual reports has criticized China for its massive military buildup, saying its motives and spending are unclear.

"We desire to work with every country in Asia to deepen our understanding of their military and defense finances, and to do so on a reciprocal basis," Gates said.

Lack of such clarity, Gates said, can lead to outright suspicion.

Nuclear fuses blunder
Gates has consistently sounded a more conciliatory tone toward China, which he visited late last year for high-level meetings with the country's leaders. Since then, however, relations have been strained by revelations in March that the U.S. military mistakenly delivered fuses for long-range missiles to Taiwan, triggering a strong protest from Beijing.

On Friday Gates declined to discuss the lengthy report he received Tuesday on the blunder and, more broadly, on the Pentagon's handling of nuclear-related materials.

Gates, who has made four major trips to Asia during his 17-month tenure as Pentagon chief, has also suggested that the U.S. — as a Pacific nation — has been a key factor in the ability of other Asian countries to grow and prosper.

And in another veiled reference to China, he said the U.S. presence in the region has opened doors and protected "common spaces on the high seas, in space and more and more in the cyber world."

U.S. officials have suspected the Chinese of trying to hack into government computers. In one instance, a number of Pentagon computers had to be taken off line for several days — but officials never openly blamed China.

Gates was scheduled to leave Singapore on Sunday and then visit defense leaders in Thailand and South Korea.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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