Pentagon lays out Asian plan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 1998, 12:00am

The United States views the Asian financial crisis as a core security concern,' the document states. 'In meeting the economic challenges of the crisis, the US will remain committed to playing a leading role in mitigating the national and international effects of economic setbacks suffered in the region.' This statement, taken from a Washington report released this week, is not in itself a headline-maker; the White House and its economic gurus in the Treasury, Commerce and State departments have been saying the same thing about Asia's financial woes for nearly a year. But what is unusual about the paragraph is the document from which it was taken - the Defence Department's latest East Asia Strategy Report (EASR).

The review, the first one devoted to laying out the Pentagon's Asian cards since 1995, is a technical, bureaucratically arid document explaining how and why the world's most powerful military enterprise plans to stay firmly entrenched in Asia well into the next century.

But what, one might ask, do the financial market collapses and the banking crises of the past year have to do with the Pentagon? Or for that matter, discussions of environmental protection, terrorism and drug trafficking? The answer is this is the New Pentagon, the new US military that is developing a post-Cold War strategy for Asia even as it tries to justify keeping Cold War levels of troops in the region.

After suggesting in the 1992 EASR that the US would slowly reduce its forces in Asia from the basic operating level of 100,000, the 1995 report (and this week's version) reversed that decision, and committed Washington to maintaining the current level of deployment.

After the retreat from the bases in the Philippines and the wearing off of euphoria from the Cold War victory, Pentagon chiefs say they saw potential 'challenges' in Asia which required them to maintain and even enhance operations in Asia.

These, the latest report makes clear, include the 1994 Korean peninsula crisis; potential territorial flashpoints such as the Spratly islands and the South China Sea; and, most recently, the renewed tension sparked by nuclear tests in South Asia.

But the biggest 'challenge' of all - pardon us if we expropriate the Pentagon's little euphemism - at the heart of the latest report is the one it barely mentions by name, but the one which courses between the lines on every page: China.

There are several themes cited as part of the Pentagon's regional strategy, including the obvious elements of making Japan the central security partnership, ensuring peace in South Korea, and maintaining and improving military co-operation with the region's other key partners - Australia, Thailand and Singapore.

But the sub-text running through the report reveals the tension between two conflicting interests: US, determined to be forward-deployed in a region over the other side of the world for the indefinite future; and China, rapidly modernising its military capability and has made it clear that it views the current level of American military presence in Asia as anathema to the region's stability.

This dynamic gives rise to what is perhaps Washington's hottest long-term security issue in Asia - how to continue playing its superpower policeman role in the region while keeping Beijing engaged and on the military straight-and-narrow.

The linguistic ballet with which the report's authors' tiptoe around this central theme only serves to underline their deep concerns.

Take, for example, the following paragraph: 'These steps [outlined in the report] are credible and sustainable because they are clearly in the interests of the United States, our allies and partners. Countries in the region watch our level of commitment as a key determinant of regional peace and stability. The dispatch of USS Nimitz and USS Independence during the March 1996 crisis, for instance, reaffirmed to Asia-Pacific nations US commitment to peace and stability in the region.' Most observers will recognise this as a reference to the Taiwan Straits showdown in 1996, when Washington responded to Beijing's missile tests and naval exercises in the area by sending two aircraft carriers in a show of strength.

But even as diplomatic sensitivities persuade the authors to avoid mentioning China and Taiwan by name, the message is clear - the US is all that stands between your free and democratising countries in Asia and the hungry dragon of China.

Nothing in this latest report will have taken People's Liberation Army leaders by surprise, but one can safely bet they dislike it intensely. It will irritate them because, for example, it reaffirms the US-Japan security alliance - probably the one single US partnership Beijing would most like to see dissolved; and because it makes a broad hint that arms sales to Taiwan are not going to be halted any time soon.

But most of all, what the document broadcasts - with a large megaphone - is that Asia is still the frontline for US interests, that the post Cold-War era has done little to quell its thirst for hegemony in the region, and that any emerging power can expand only with America's permission or at America's expense.

'Other nations may choose to challenge elements of this report, but they cannot claim ignorance of American intentions, approach and status in the Asia-Pacific region,' the review states.

There can be no disputing that, tragic misjudgments such as Vietnam apart, US military presence in Asia has, on the whole, been of immense benefit to the region and a stable pedestal on which its prosperity has been built. But the emergence of China as a potential superpower promises to change the dynamic.

Admittedly, the White House has been urging the Pentagon to lead the way in engaging the mainland, and the report lists some of the trust-enhancing measures taken, including formal military dialogues and the US forces' airlift of supplies to recent flood victims in China. But what the document does not discuss is the growing sense of anxiety within the Pentagon's top brass that engagement with the PLA might lead them up a blind alley.

'The uniformed services have turned a corner in their attitude towards the PLA,' said Richard Fisher of the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank often critical of administration policy. 'They've reached a point where they are sick and tired of giving to the PLA and never getting anything in return.' Is this latest report, then, the reassuring vow of a big brother to look after his weaker siblings, or the last muscle-flexing of a regional giant before he is challenged by a new bully on the block? While we await the answer, rest assured that the streets of Wan Chai will be crawling with American sailors for years to come.


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Pentagon lays out Asian plan

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