By Raju Gopalakrishnan and David Alexander
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The United States is seriously concerned about cyber-attacks and is prepared to use force against those it considers an act of war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a security meeting in Asia on Saturday.
He also assured Asian allies that the United States would protect sea lanes and maintain a robust military presence in the region despite a severe budget crunch and the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We take the cyber threat very seriously and we see it from a variety of sources, not just one or another country," Gates said, an apparent reference to reports that several of the attacks may have originated in China.
"What would constitute an act of war by cyber that would require some kind of response, either in kind or kinetically?" he said.
"We could avoid some serious international tensions in the future if we could establish some rules of the road as early as possible to let people know what kinds of acts are acceptable, what kinds of acts are not and what kinds of acts may in fact be acts of war."
Earlier this week, Google said it had disrupted a campaign aimed at stealing passwords of hundreds of Google email account holders, including senior U.S. government officials, Chinese activists and journalists.
It was the latest in a series of cyber attacks that have also targeted defense contractor Lockheed Martin and Sony Corp. Google said the latest breach appeared to originate in China but neither the company nor the U.S. government has said the Chinese government was responsible.
But the U.S. State Department has asked Beijing to investigate.
Gates said it was difficult to identify where the perpetrators of such attacks were based and added that military ties with China were improving.
But he also said the U.S. was preparing weapons systems and capabilities that would allow U.S. forces "to deploy, move and strike over great distances in defense of our allies and vital interests." Although he gave few other details, the plans could worry China, U.S. officials privately said. Asked whether China wouldn't see the remarks as a concern, a senior U.S. defense official said it was an example of the need for greater military transparency between the two sides. "Without transparency, we obviously have to do certain things and make certain preparations because it's not quite clear what everybody's intentions are," the official said. "So the more ... clear it is about what China's military investment is aimed at, the more clear it us for us what's going on in the region and what intentions are."
ASSURANCES DESPITE STRAINS
Gates said the United States was committed to its Asian allies although a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan had strained U.S. ground forces and exhausted public patience, while the recession had left Washington with huge budget deficits and looking to cut military spending. "Irrespective of the tough times the U.S. faces today, or the tough budget choices we confront in the coming years, ... America's interests as a Pacific nation -- as a country that conducts much of its trade in the region -- will endure," he said.
"The United States and Asia will only become more inextricably linked over the course of this century. These realities ... argue strongly for sustaining our commitments to allies while maintaining a robust military engagement and deterrent posture across the Pacific Rim," he said.
Gates' remarks come at a time of great change within the U.S. military community. He himself is due to step down at the end of June and hand over to Secretary-designate Leon Panetta, the current CIA director. The top uniformed U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, will retire October 1, and Obama has named Army General Martin Dempsey to replace him. "There is a fair degree of anxiety in the region right now -- given the budgetary pressures they perceive that the United States faces -- about what our future role is going to be in the Asia-Pacific region," a senior U.S. defense official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said few things would be as destabilizing for the region than the perception of a retreat on the part of the United States. "We are clearly signaling our commitment to continue to play a significant role in the Asia-Pacific region and on continuing to make sure that we have the capabilities ... to help underwrite peace and stability," the official said.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)