Fundamental shift in U.S.-Asia ties

Analysts see China as main beneficiary as US makes war on terror its focus

SEPT 11 fundamentally altered US-Asia ties, forcing a reassessment of relationships between Washington and most countries in the region.

The American “desire to make the world safe for democracy” has given Asia’s giant, China, the breathing space to expand its political and economic clout. India has been another beneficiary, as Washington started courting New Delhi in a move to widen alliances in the region.

In South-east Asia, the United States re-established links with the Indonesian military and deepened defence ties with key allies as it moved to engage the region after more than two decades of relative disengagement.

Once a bastion of Soviet influence during the Cold War, the countries in the Central Asian republics have also moved to align with President George W. Bush’s war on terror.

But of all the Asian states, China appears to have gained the most. The US war on terror and the quagmire in Iraq gave Beijing the leeway to pursue its economic development, military modernisation and diplomatic charm offensive in Asia.

Observers say that China saw that it was in its interest to cooperate with the US on counter-terrorism and other issues, staving off deep tensions in the bilateral relationship.

In the aftermath of Sept 11, 2001, the leaders in Beijing acted forcefully to condemn terrorism and made clear their determination to work with Washington to prevent future incidents. This included sharing intelligence about the Al-Qaeda terror network and using the Shanghai Apec meeting in late 2001 to further the anti-terrorist cause.

Even after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, China was measured in its criticism, largely accommodating American interests.

It is debatable though whether the war on terror has fostered an intimacy and common purpose in bilateral ties.

Professor Wang Xiangsui, who heads the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, noted: “Yes, Sept 11 did have some positive influence on Sino-US relations, but it did not change the nature of the strategic relationship between the two powers.”

The “glow” from their supposed cooperation on counter-terrorism has also faded in the face of acrimonious disputes on trade, currency and military spending in recent years, analysts added.

On the other hand, Washington has moved rapidly to establish a “strategic partnership” with New Delhi. The two countries signed a deal last year that allowed India to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal in exchange for allowing international inspections of its civilian reactors.

Representing a dramatic transformation in bilateral ties that has eluded both countries for the past 50 years, the Bush administration has also pledged “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century”.

The key driver here is India’s intrinsic value in providing intelligence about terrorist elements in neighbouring Pakistan and Central Asia.

A senior intelligence official in India’s Research and Analysis Wing told The Straits Times: “We continue to give the Americans critical information on Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the region. India has become vital to their strategic calculations.”

India’s neighbours include Afghanistan and Central Asia, which has been a breeding ground for international terrorist groups. To counter these groups, the US has built a network of smaller, jumping-off bases in Central Asia, although some of them, including Uzbekistan, are having second thoughts about such a close alliance with Washington.

Following the defeat of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, the US quickly came to regard South-east Asia as the second front in the struggle against terrorism and sought specially to court Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has been a beneficiary in this regard. Since 2002, the US has taken several steps to improve the relationship.

These include US$400 million (S$630 million) worth of American aid after the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Aceh in December 2004, a US$157 million education scheme to train teachers as well as the resumption of full military ties after a lapse of 14 years.

As for Malaysia, Washington tapped Kuala Lumpur’s assistance in tracking down extremist elements, many of whom had attended religious boarding schools in the country before leaving for Afghanistan in the mid-1980s to fight the Soviet troops there.

In return, Malaysia, the current chair of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference, has been projected in the US as a successful, moderate Muslim country that is a beacon of stability in the region.

Elsewhere in the region, Washington has sent US special operations forces to work with the Philippine armed forces to help wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaeda.

Economic and military assistance – held back for a decade after the closure of the Subic Bay naval base and Clark airfield – poured back into the Philippines after Sept 11. According to the US State Department, military aid soared from US$3.8 million in 2001 to US$46 million a year later, and then to US$53 million in 2003.

While ties with several Asian countries have improved significantly since Sept 11, analysts noted that Washington’s single-minded focus on the “war against terrorism” has drawn the Bush administration away from other major issues in the region.

Dr Kurt Campbell, a former senior defence official in the Clinton administration, told The Straits Times: “Fighting terrorism has consumed the leadership of the US. Its main focus is the Middle East. Other than terrorism, there is not much high-level attention being paid to Asia.

“That has significant implications, especially if we see how China has benefited from all this inattention. Beijing clearly is the biggest winner in America’s war on terror.”

“Fighting terrorism has consumed the leadership of the United States. Its main focus is the Middle East. Other than terrorism, there is not much high-level attention being paid to Asia.”
-DR KURT CAMPBELL, a former senior defence official in the Clinton administration

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