U.S. Encourages Regional Armed Forces To Act in Local Crises In Pacific

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Tue Mar 14 00:45:03 PST 2000

International Herald Tribune (Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) March 10, 2000, Friday SECTION: News; Pg. 1 HEADLINE: U.S. Moves To Reduce Its Profile In Pacific; Policy Would Encourage Regional Armed Forces To Act in Local Crises BYLINE: By Michael Richardson ; International Herald Tribune DATELINE: SINGAPORE

The United States is moving to lower its military profile in the Asia-Pacific region by encouraging local armed forces to work more closely together and take the lead in any regional crisis that does not require large- scale U.S. intervention.

The aim, officials and analysts say, is to strengthen security cooperation in the region while reducing U.S. commitments to send troops into conflicts that could result in American deaths or casualties - something Congress is reluctant to sanction unless U.S. national interests are clearly at stake.

Outlining the U.S. military's new approach to Asia and the Pacific this week, Admiral Dennis Blair, commander in chief of American forces in the region, said the Australian-led, U.S.-supported coalition of regional and other soldiers that restored peace in East Timor was a model for future peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Asia and perhaps in other parts of the world.

''Previously, the U.S. has followed two modes of involvement in international peacekeeping operations - either being large and in charge or standing aside,'' he told a congressional panel Tuesday. ''East Timor demonstrated the value of having the U.S. in a supporting role to a competent ally, providing unique and significant capabilities needed to ensure success without stretching the capability of U.S. forces and resources to conduct other operations worldwide.''

Partly because East Timor had shown the value of coalition operations to countries in Asia and the Pacific, Admiral Blair said that his command had overhauled its exercise plans to improve regional readiness for combined operations.

The U.S. military conducts more than 300 exercises a year with nations in the region, but only six are major ones.

''We are working closely with our security partners to merge bilateral exercises into regional exercises using updated scenarios that develop the skills we expect our combined forces will need,'' Admiral Blair said. ''Next month, we will conduct an initial planning conference to bring together four of our larger exercises in Southeast Asia into one exercise called Team Challenge, scheduled for next year.''

Confirming the move, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado of the Philippines said, ''What we are foreseeing would be a situation where we would have not only bilateral but possibly multilateral exercises with other countries with which the United States has military cooperation ties.''

The Philippines is one of five Asia-Pacific nations that has mutual defense treaties with the United States. The others are Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia.

''The abilities of our Asia-Pacific neighbors to plan and conduct regional contingency operations, such as East Timor,'' Admiral Blair said, ''is critical to security and peaceful development as well as conducive to reducing the U.S. role in responding to these crises.''

But he made it clear that the United States remained committed to defending South Korea and Taiwan from attack.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has broadened its security engagement by holding regular military training exercises with many countries in the Asia-Pacific region and gaining permission to use their ports and airfields to help cut the cost of maintaining large forces in East Asia, most of which are based in Japan or South Korea.

The United States has also sought to develop closer ties with former Cold War adversaries in the region, particularly China and Vietnam.

In the case of Vietnam, that process is expected to take a significant step forward when Defense Secretary William Cohen visits next week. He is due to arrive in Hanoi on Monday.

Mr. Cohen will be the first U.S. defense secretary to visit since the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that pitted the Communist North against the U. S.-backed South Vietnam.

He is expected to discuss expansion of low-level military ties and cooperation in accounting for American servicemen still listed as missing in action from the war, which ended in 1975. Vietnam and the United States normalized diplomatic relations in 1995.

''I think we need workmanlike working relations with virtually all armed forces in the region,'' Admiral Blair said. ''We don't have those with Vietnam right now. If as a result of the secretary's trip we can begin to establish just the basic contacts, I think that will be a good start.''

But analysts said a number of Asian and Pacific countries that had close ties with the United States and supported its military presence in the region were concerned at the way America was defining its strategic interests in Asia.

For example, just a few days before Admiral Blair spoke in Washington, Singapore's deputy prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said there was a sense in the region that the United States was dealing with Asia as a bundle of disparate issues without a coherent policy framework.

''Congress has become more assertive and questioning, and less bipartisan, '' Mr. Lee said in an address opening the Williamsburg Conference, a private forum of U.S. and Asian security specialists, in Singapore last week. ''TV images drive the impulse for humanitarian intervention, in East Timor just as in Kosovo. These trends are accentuated in a presidential election year.''

Analysts said some countries in the region also were worried that the new emphasis by the U.S. military on forming ''security communities'' of like-minded nations and undertaking more multilateral training exercises could alienate China, which suspects Washington of wanting to contain its rise as a regional power.

But Admiral Blair said the security communities the U.S. military envisaged would be ''committed to policy coordination, including combined military cooperation on specific regional security issues, to advance peaceful development over time without major conflict.''

This program, he added, is open ''to former enemies like Vietnam and to current potential antagonists like China.''

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