By David Alexander
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER THE PACIFIC (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that relations with China were at "a pretty good place" but declined to take a view on calls in Congress for a sale of F-16 jet fighters to China's diplomatic rival, Taiwan.
Gates, speaking en route to a defense conference in Singapore, said the United States was not trying to prevent China from realizing its potential but did want to find ways to successfully manage the differences between the two sides.
"There is value in a continuing dialogue by the two sides on just exactly what our concerns are, what our issues are and how we might alleviate those concerns on both sides," said Gates, who will meet his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie in Singapore on Friday.
"That's why I've believed all along that the strategic dialogue is so important. We are not trying to hold China down. China has been a great power for thousands of years. It is a global power and will be a global power. So the question is how we work our way through this in a way that ensures that we continue to have positive relations," Gates said.
U.S.-China military ties have been gradually warming but are still fragile after nearly a year's break over a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. U.S. military leaders are concerned about China's growing military capabilities, some of which they feel are directed at countering the United States strengths in the region.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, to be united eventually with the mainland - and by force if necessary. The United States recognizes Beijing's "one China" policy, but is obliged under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.
China tested a radar-evading jet fighter during Gates visit to Beijing in January and there have been reports that it could soon launch its first aircraft carrier.
Gates told reporters on his plane that he did not believe the Chinese were trying to challenge U.S. military power on all fronts.
"I think the Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience," he said. "They do not intend to try to compete with us across the full range of our capabilities but I think they are intending to develop capabilities that give them a considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence."
Gates said Taiwan was an issue at "practically every meeting" between U.S. and Chinese military leaders, with U.S. officials explaining that arms sales for Taiwan's defense were mandated by law.
"I think under both the Bush and Obama administrations we have tried to thread the needle pretty carefully in terms of Taiwan's defensive capabilities but at the same time being aware of China's sensitivities," he said.
Questioned about calls in the U.S. Senate for a new sale of F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, Gates said, "I don't have a view on that at this point."
The proposed sale is under review by the State and Defense departments, and Chinese general Gen. Chen Bingde said during a visit to Washington recently that arms sales to Taiwan could have an impact on military ties between Beijing and Washington.
Gates, who is due to retire at the end of June, said he was "very satisfied" with the progress of U.S.-Chinese military ties during his tenure in office.
"I laid out a fairly ambitious agenda for developing our military-to-military relationship," he said, noting that he first visited as defense secretary in 2007. "Obviously it hit snags or obstacles along the way but I think we're in a pretty good place now."
At the security summit in Singapore, Gates aims to reassure allies that the United States will continue to uphold its security commitments in Asia despite coming budget cutbacks and his own imminent departure.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)