WASHINGTON, May 28, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates left yesterday for two days of security talks with defense counterparts and other senior officials from across Asia. The Asia Security Summit, known as the “Shangri-La Dialogue” for the Singapore hotel at which it’s held annually, is sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It opens May 30, and comes on the heels of a week of provocative acts by North Korea, including reported nuclear and missile tests and rumors of threats to attack U.S. and South Korean warships.

Senior U.S. officials have denounced the acts, calling them “provocative and belligerent,” and senior defense officials say that while the talks in Singapore will not focus entirely on North Korea, it is likely the subject will occupy much of both the formal and aside conversations.

“It’s obviously got to be addressed,” a senior defense official, speaking on background, said. “It’s a potential game-changer. … I think it’s fair to say that our approach is going to be that it’s hard to affect North Korea directly, but we can certainly shore up and reinforce and deepen our relationships with our allies and our friends out there.”

For the first time, Gates will sit down with the defense ministers from both South Korea and Japan. He also will meet briefly with a senior military official from China. All three countries have expressed alarm at North Korea’s recent actions.

“We’re looking to have a dialogue with our allies and our friends and work jointly together on what the proper responses should be,” the defense official said. “We want to work with Asia on Asia’s problems.”

As he did last year, Gates will open the conference’s first session. He will discuss a broad set of security issues and will promise continued support from the new U.S. administration, the official said. This underscores Gate’s intent behind the trip, the official added, which is to reaffirm commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

About 250,000 servicemembers, or nearly one-fifth of total U.S. military strength, serve in the region, with Navy and Marine forces making up the largest elements.

“We’re committed to the region, even though there is a lot of other stuff going on,” the defense official said. “The United States is going to continue to be focused on Asia.”

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