BY SEAN MARONEY, HONOLULU, HAWAII – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he plans to use his final international trip in office to let American allies in Asia know that Washington remains committed to the region. Gates spoke to reporters in Hawaii, late Tuesday, a day before as he heads to a major security conference with Asian countries in Singapore.
Gates says he wants governments in Asia to know that, although he leaves office on June 30 and the U.S. military is expected to cut billions of dollars from its budget, Washington’s commitment to the region will not waver.
“Even as we look at potential budget reductions, there is no slackening of the U.S. commitment to our presence in Asia. We are a Pacific nation. We will remain a Pacific nation. We will remain engaged,” he said.
Gates made his comments late Tuesday at the site of the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
The brief stop in Hawaii comes a day before the secretary travels to Singapore for a security conference with his Asian counterparts.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters that Gates is aware of the region’s concerns about upcoming cuts in U.S. military spending and plans to address them at the Singapore dialogue, later this week.
The agenda for the conference also is expected to include discussions on China’s military buildup and the situation in Afghanistan.
Earlier Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave what he called his last warning to the international coalition that he will not tolerate air strikes that target civilian homes.
President Karzai warned NATO not to become an “occupying force” in Afghanistan after the latest round of civilian casualties resulted from coalition air strikes.
Gates says he understands Karzai’s frustration.
“The Afghan people have put up with 30 years of war. And, I think President Karzai is reflecting the pain and suffering that the Afghan people have had to endure,” he said.
Gates says it is important for both sides to jointly investigate civilian casualties and that Karzai and the Afghan people recognize that the U.S.-led NATO coalition is an ally trying to help Afghanistan see an end to the conflict.
Following the security meeting in Singapore, Gates is scheduled to head to the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels next week, where the situation in Afghanistan is again expected to be part of the agenda.