Re-engaged US has vital role to play in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's declaration that 'the United States is back' in Southeast Asia implies both neglect of relationships and the expectation of a welcome. There is truth in both.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shaped US policy in the first decade of the 21st century. As a result, it was preoccupied with perceived direct threats. This did not affect military commitment to regional stability or totally halt development of bilateral relations. But generally the projection of soft power suffered as Asia - with the exception of China and India - and Latin America became relative blind spots in foreign-policy focus.

On arriving in Thailand for regional discussions, Mrs Clinton deflected a question on whether the George W. Bush administration had neglected US relations in Asia. But the region would welcome the Barack Obama administration's more nuanced world view.

There is no doubt that some, if not most, of China's security-policy establishment resent the influence of US power in Asia, particularly Washington's military ties with Taiwan. But an engaged United States is important to the peace and prosperity of the region. Along with containing potentially dangerous rivalries through its network of alliances in Asia, the US plays a crucial role in underwriting Asia's growth. For the foreseeable future, only the US will have the naval power that can guarantee the security of sea lanes that carry the exports of manufactured goods and imports of raw materials and energy that sustain the region's major economies.

Some Asian governments will also welcome re-engagement as a counterbalance to China's growing economic and military reach. At this stage it is in China's interests too for the US to help keep the lid on potential tensions.

Ironically, deeper and broader relationships with Asia could also help in the battle against terror that seemed to distract the Bush administration in the first place. One benefit could be increased co-operation in efforts to protect shipping from terrorists or pirates.