June 11, 2011

For the US, game not over in Asia

Nayan Chanda | Jun 11, 2011, 12.00am IST

As the debt-ridden US struggles to reduce its deficit and a cash-rich China flexes its muscles, most ofAsia is worried about a weakened America retreating from the region. Last week, Robert Gates, the departing US defence secretary, stepped in to dispel these fears. He told a gathering of Asia's defence officials in Singapore that America's "robust military engagement and deterrence posture" will not only continue but expand. Given America's deep strategic and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, it is not an empty assurance.

America's stake in Asia is enormous - nearly a trillion dollars in annual trade, billions of dollars of investment, to say nothing of the security of its allies, its global standing and the importance of the South China Sea that carries a third of the world's trade. Concrete reasons aside, for the US not to counter perceptions of declining commitment to the region would undermine its influence.

It is no coincidence that Gates's reassurance came mere weeks after reports of new tension between China and the South China Sea claimants - Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam has always been more public in its denunciations of Chinese harassment of its fishermen and exploration vessels. But last week, the Philippines too was uncharacteristically blunt in condemning hostile Chinese actions in what it claims as its territorial waters. Gates diplomatically blamed a lack of "rules of the road" for these clashes. But there was no mistaking who he saw as responsible for not respecting agreed codes of conduct.

It was against this backdrop of Chinese assertiveness that secretary of state Hillary Clinton launched her "America is back" in Asia slogan. China's spats with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and its support for North Korea's aggressive behaviour have prompted its neighbours to ask for a greater American commitment. In July last year, Clinton provoked a sharp Chinese response when she offered the US's good offices for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute. Encouraged as they were by the new American assertiveness, they have since grown anxious about how impending cuts in the Pentagon's budget will impact the US presence in Asia. Gates was upfront in admitting that drastic cuts in the defence budget (of $400 billion over the next 12 years) are in the works, but assured allies that the focus has been first on cancelling troubled or unnecessary weapons programmes and culling excess overhead. However, "key remaining modernisation programmes - systems that are of particular importance to our military strategy in Asia - will rank at or near the top of our defence budget priorities," he announced.

In recent years, China has developed anti-submarine and anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile capabilities to counter the power projection of the US's carrier battle groups. But without mentioning China by name, Gates noted US concerns about "anti-access and area denial scenarios" and said that the US was working to develop a new concept of operations - called "Air-Sea Battle" - to ensure that America's military will continue to be able to "deploy, move, and strike over great distances in defence of our allies and vital interests". These programmes, he said, would grow "even in the face of new threats abroad and fiscal challenges at home, ensuring that we will continue to meet our commitments as a 21st century Asia-Pacific nation - with appropriate forces, posture, and presence". As part of an expanded US role in the region, Gates announced the deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore. These short-range, high-speed warships, optimised for shallow-water operations with anti-submarine and demining capacity, would be best suited for Southeast Asian waters.

To underline America's new position in Asia, Gates noted how its former enemy Vietnam now has a "strong and vibrant bilateral relationship" in trade, security and defence. The US and India, he said, were working "more closely together than ever before".

Worth noting is that Gates underscored America's deepening commitment to Asia while taking care to avoid antagonising Beijing. Gates pronounced China-US relations as being on "a more positive trajectory", a view with which his Chinese counterpart readily agreed. Notwithstanding their recent provocative behaviour, Chinese leaders are aware of the limits to their power. The plain statements about the US's determination to stay in the region were thus a sobering message to take back to Beijing.

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