(CNSNews.com) - A year after charging that China's defense spending was threatening Asia's military balance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned to the subject at the weekend but using a new approach - urging China to end the secrecy surrounding its military buildup for its own good.
Addressing a key security conference in Singapore, Rumsfeld said the Chinese "lack of transparency with respect to their military investments understandably causes concerns for some of their neighbors."
In a question-and-answer session afterwards he elaborated, saying China could not engage successfully with the rest of the world in the economic field while continuing to unsettle other countries with its behavior.
"If the rest of the world looks at China and sees a behavior pattern that is mysterious and potentially threatening, it tends to affect the willingness to invest," he said.
"The extent that people do things that the rest of the world frowns on, there ends up being a penalty for that, in one way or another."
Rumsfeld said he believed China would benefit by "demystifying" the topic of its military investment.
Beijing's declared military budget for this year is $35 billion, but the Pentagon estimates that the actual spending is between $75 and $105 billion, making China's defense budget the world's second-largest, well above those of Japan and Britain.
A Pentagon report released last month said China was working to extend its military capacities by employing more weaponry and long-range aircraft, was altering the military balance across the Taiwan Strait by deploying more than 700 missiles aimed at the island, and had yet to explain adequately the reasons for the build-up.
At 2.3 million-strong, China's People's Liberation Army is the world's biggest and it looks to Russia for the bulk of its foreign weapons purchases.
Rumsfeld's comments were made at the Shangri-la Dialogue, a five-year-old annual summit organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. At the 2005 event his strong criticism of China dominated media coverage and fueled regional political analysis for months afterwards.
This year's gathering drew defense ministers and experts from countries across the Asia-Pacific as well as those from U.S., Canada, Britain and France.
Many of the participants are close U.S. military allies, although China also took part, albeit choosing not to be represented at a ministerial level.
Rumsfeld welcomed what he called an "expanding network of security cooperation in this region, both bilaterally between nations and multilaterally among nations, with the United States as a partner."
He contrasted the inclusiveness of such groupings to the situation pertaining in other bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an increasingly forthright security bloc comprising China, Russia and four Central Asian republics.
The SCO, which has challenged U.S. military presence in Central Asia, will shortly hold its annual summit amid indications that Iran and Pakistan -- currently observers along with India and Mongolia -- may join.
Another, newer, regional structure is the 16-member East Asia Summit, which despite efforts of U.S. allies in its ranks declined to invite the U.S. to observe its inaugural meeting in Malaysia last December.
Rumsfeld said groups like these were entitled to be exclusive, but questioned how effective they could be.
"Our personal preference is for organizations that are inclusive and that, thereby, have a better chance of being successful in addressing some of the critical and, indeed, dangerous problems that face the world," he said.
"Small, exclusive groups tend not to be able to effectively do the job."
Rumsfeld made the strongest remarks yet from a senior U.S. government representative about the reported SCO plan to admit Iran.
"It strikes me as passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it's against terrorism one of the nations that's a leading terrorist nation in the world -- Iran," he said in response to a question.
"To think that they should be brought into an organization with the hope that it would contribute to an antiterrorist activity strikes me as unusual."
And in a possible reference in part to an SCO call last year for a timetable for U.S. troops in Central Asia to leave, Rumsfeld chided the Russians for "seek[ing] to constrain the independence and freedom of action of some of their neighboring countries."
SCO linchpins China and Russia have repeatedly blocked attempts by the U.S. to take a tougher line in the U.N. Security Council against Iran's suspect nuclear program. Iranian officials have already indicated they expect SCO membership to benefit Tehran in its nuclear standoff with the West.
Earlier in the conference, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said by agreeing to consider admitting Iran to the SCO in the midst of the nuclear dispute "Russia and China have reminded the West of their combined influence on world-turning events."
Rumsfeld's argument that it was in Beijing's own interests to be more open about its military spending and ambitions is in line with a new U.S. approach of encouraging China to accompany its economic progress with steps aimed at becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community, and benefiting as a result.
The policy was also in evidence when the State Department Sunday marked the 17th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators by urging Beijing to reevaluate what happened in 1989.
"It is in China's own interest to clear the record and achieve its true potential by linking its efforts to modernize and prosper with greater freedoms for the Chinese people," said spokesman Sean McCormack.
"No country, especially one which is playing an increasingly important role in world affairs, should fear an examination of its past, nor prevent its people from exercising their basic rights to accountable government and free speech, assembly and worship."
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