Washington not disengaging from Asia

THE United States is not disengaging from Asia, even though its focus is now on the Middle East, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

But it will not be able to pay “special attention” to cope with the new forces at work in the region, allowing China and Japan to make an effort to fill up the space.

MM Lee noted that, with growing regional integration, the two North-east Asian countries were vying with each other to forge stronger economic ties with Asean.

“China is going to become the major trading partner and also the major investment destination of all the Asean nations,” he said.

“Japan is trying to counter this by having its own special economic relations with Asean.”

He also observed that, while the US had an enhanced partnership with Asean, Washington did not have “the thrust behind it because the energies are being consumed by the Middle East”.

Indeed, Washington’s time and resources are now concentrated on the Iraq war, Iran, Afghanistan and the war on terror.

“That does not mean that the US is going to disengage from the region. It is just that it will not receive special attention and the United States does not want more trouble in Asia while it has problems in the Middle East,” said Mr Lee, who met top US administration officials, including President George W. Bush, during his two-week working visit.

“So, they will want somehow to contain the North Korean nuclear problem, keep stability between Taiwan and the mainland, keep cross-strait relations on an even keel, and carry on. Business carries on and investments carry on. What is missing is the extra attention…”

MM Lee, who last visited the US in 2004, said that the mood in the country was now “a bit greyer” because of the increasing violence in Iraq. He also said he did not see any weakening of resolve on the part of the administration.

But he added: “The problem is the mood in America, which will be reflected in the mid-term election. Day by day you get this endless series of sectarian killings, mounting casualties – not just Arabs but also Americans. But in the long-term of history, it is less than one day’s combat in Vietnam.”

In the longer run, he said, Washington will have to contend with a major problem of uniting Iraq.

It has to find a way of accommodating the three contending parties – the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds – and reconciling them within one polity. Neighbouring countries would be tempted to come in if Iraq were to fray at the seams.

A potentially bigger problem for the US – and the rest of the world – is Iran. The bloodletting in Iraq might change the shape of the country but it would not alter the global power equation. But Iran could, depending on how problems are resolved in Iraq and whether it acquires the nuclear bomb.

Said MM Lee: “Now, if there wasn’t oil in that region, the world can just look the other way.”

But more than 40 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves are in the Gulf region, so “when it goes into turmoil or is captured by or is influenced by one single power, the world will be at risk”.

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