'China poses no threat to Asia'

Updated: 2007-06-01 22:18

SINGAPORE - Most Asian countries do not see China's military buildup or increased defense spending as a threat to regional security, Singapore's prime minister said Friday.

"Most Asian countries assess the challenge from China to be more economic than military," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech to inaugurate a three-day regional security conference.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is being attended by several defense ministers and top officials from 26 countries, including US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony and the Chinese army's deputy chief of the general staff, Lt. Gen. Zhang Qisheng.

Lee noted that the US and Japan have expressed concerns over China's military buildup, and sought more information on its defense spending and intentions.

China announced in March it would boost military spending by 17.8 percent in 2007 to 350.92 billion yuan (US$44.94 billion), the biggest jump in more than a decade.

Lee warned of negative consequences if Taiwan amends its Constitution and holds a referendum on the amendments.

"These actions ... could lead to unintended and dangerous escalation of tensions between China and the US," he said. "Asian countries will be forced to choose sides, which none want to do," Lee told the forum, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Lee also touched upon nuclear-powered India's growing weight in regional and international affairs. India's emerging relationship with the US has also created "a new dynamic."

However, the debate caused in India by those who oppose closer relations with the US shows that that New Delhi "will not be a deputy sheriff to the United States, but fully intends to maintain its own strategic priorities," Lee said.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, named after the hotel where it is held every year, has grown in stature after six years of bringing together defense ministers, army chiefs and other officials from countries that are friends and adversaries. The aim is to allow them to hold talks in an informal setting without political baggage.

In a reflection of the conference's importance, China's chief delegate this year is of vice-ministerial rank and the highest ranking official ever sent to a regional forum of this level.

Singapore's Lee set the tone for the freewheeling talks over the next two days with some frank comments of his own.

Answering questions from the audience, he acknowledged that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-nation grouping, had failed to make any progress in persuading fellow member Myanmar's military junta to adopt democracy.

"We have exercised our influence, persuaded, encouraged, cajoled the authorities in Myanmar to move and adapt to the world which is leaving them behind. The impact has been limited," he said.

Lee also urged the United States not to withdraw from Iraq without a clear victory, saying it would embolden extremists in other places.

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