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US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during a press conference at Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, June 4, 2012. - File Photo by AP

JAKARTA: Proclaiming its fate to be strongly tied to Asia, the United States unveiled on Saturday detailed plans to build and strengthen its military presence in the region. Time will tell whether the growing US presence becomes a positive force for the peace, development and prosperity of Asia, or simply heightens the tensions in a region already convoluted by an arms race.

Asia is increasingly caught in the paradox of prosperity: as countries become more prosperous, they spend proportionally more of their new wealth on defence. They go on massive shopping sprees not only because they can afford to but mostly because they want to protect their economic interests to ensure sustainable growth and development.

Budgetary constraints dictated that US President Barack Obama draw down on the US military operations and presence in the Middle East and Europe but not in Asia, where China’s military is increasingly challenging US power and influence, though not necessarily yet its dominance.

In a much anticipated speech, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday that the US would deploy more aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and combat ships, carrying the most advanced technology and weapons, in Asia as part of what he called the rebalancing of the US military to Asia.

If the US naval deployment in the past had been equally divided between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Asian “pivot” will shift it 60/40 in the Pacific’s favour. The new policy not only calls for more frequent port calls and military exercises in the Pacific but also for beefing up the presence in Japan, Guam and northern Australia and for securing more access to military facilities in other friendly countries.

Under the plan, the US military will have the ability to project its forces anywhere in Asia. Washington has a vested interest in securing the safety of commerce and access to natural resources and has called on countries in Asia to respect freedom of navigation.

The new US policy seeks to strengthen ties through traditional alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines, and also through partnerships with countries like Indonesia and India. Panetta also said the US was seeking to build military-to-military relations with China and Myanmar.

With the centre of global economic gravity shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, the US interests are inextricably linked to the fortunes of this part of the world. But Asia is also home to some of the world’s potential flashpoints: the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait, the Kashmir dispute between nuclear-powers India and Pakistan, the overlapping territorial claims involving China in the South China Sea and the North China Sea. The ongoing arms race has only intensified some of these tensions. Almost all the littoral states are investing heavily in strengthening their naval forces, taking their lead from China, signifying their intention to secure their maritime interests, from the safe passage of commercial vessels to the control of or access to the potentially big prize of rich underwater natural resources, including oil and gas reserves.

The new US policy comes amid growing tensions between China and the Philippines as both seek to assert their claim over the gas-rich Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Responding to a question at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Panetta said the US would not interfere in any territorial disputes but it would insist that such disputes and any others be resolved in a peaceful manner and in accordance with international laws.

In spite of the military buildup by the US and the arms race among Asian countries, their governments profess to put diplomacy first in resolving their disputes. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China are currently working on a binding code of conduct to address conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. Besides the Philippines, China also has disputes with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam in the region.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in his keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday noted the evolution of a new security architecture in the Asia Pacific, not so much by design as by the proliferation of bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements among countries in the region. He described these and the many joint military exercises as important confidence-building measures that would also help to eliminate the distrust often sowed by disputes and the rising tensions. They have certainly helped to keep peace in the region.

Yudhoyono repeated Indonesia’s proposal for a joint military exercise involving Indonesia, China and the US for humanitarian operations, recalling the massive international military deployment in the largest peacetime military operation in the wake of the deadly tsunami in Indonesia in 2004.

Asia-Pacific countries are also engaging actively even as virtually everyone is building up their military capability. In the absence of the equivalent of Nato, Asia has several forums in which the member states have addressed their common security problems and challenges, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Asean Regional Forum, the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus and the East Asian Summit that involves 18 countries, including the US and Russia.

While the military buildup by countries in the region, including the US, seems the inevitable outcome of Asia’s rising economic prosperity, few are contemplating ever using their sophisticated and deadly weapons against their enemies, knowing full well that if anyone fired the first salvo, it could completely derail and undo all the progress of the entire region.As ironic as it may seem, in this context, many countries in the region welcome the stronger US military presence in Asia to further guarantee their peace and prosperity.

By arrangement with The Jakarta Post/ANN

Updated Jun 04, 2012 10:10pm

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