Afghan Cutback Triggers Asia Concerns

America’s military presence is seen as key to counterbalancing China’s increasing might.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2011-06-24
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A Chinese surveillance vessel, the Haixun 31, is docked at a Singapore center after passing through the South China Sea, June 22, 2011.
AFP

The thinning of the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan has raised concerns about the broader American security presence in Asia at a time when China is flexing its muscle in the region.

These fears are understandable as calls have intensified to trim American foreign military operations in the face of rising U.S. debt and unemployment, fiscal constraint, and the teetering economic recovery.

Even a county sheriff in Arizona, the U.S. state bordering Mexico and grappling with an influx of illegal aliens, has given his own take on the debate.

Paul Babeu, the sheriff of Pinal county in southern Arizona, asks why the United States is maintaining nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea 57 years after the Korean war ended, when Arizona struggles with just 1,200 U.S. National Guard troops, far short of what's needed, to safeguard the border.

"What are we doing," Babeu asked. "We need 6,000 armed soldiers on our border to protect America," he told local media. "Homeland Security starts at home."

U.S. President Barack Obama, facing increasing political pressure to deal with Washington's U.S. $1.4 trillion budget deficit and more than U.S. $14 trillion in debt, himself made clear that national interest was paramount as he announced the U.S. troop cutback in Afghanistan.

“It is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he said in his Wednesday speech on the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2012.

"One of the arguments that I made in talking to the American people about this drawdown is that our strength, our power, has always been based first and foremost on our own economic strength and prosperity," Obama told the Voice of America in an interview.

"We have to be more judicious in how we project power. That’s good strategy. It’s good for our national security. It happens to also be good for our budget."

Assurance

Two weeks before Obama's announcement, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Asia and assured allies that the U.S. would maintain a robust military presence in the region.

Gates had assured Asian leaders that the U.S. would increase the number of navy calls in ports and naval war games and step up multilateral training efforts in the region.

But some groups remain unconvinced, saying they detect isolationism gaining ground in the United States while China's power in the region continues to rise.

The Obama administration’s "apparent lack of any explicit Asia strategy means that Gates’s reassurances might not reassure for very long," Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Defense Minister and National Security Adviser, said in a recent commentary.

"Without a clear and convincing doctrine, at least some Asian leaders are likely to remain dubious of America’s ability to remain Asia’s dominant military force, particularly given its economic woes, projected fiscal retrenchment, and other overseas commitments," she said.

"This lack of clarity may become particularly troublesome should China’s leaders underestimate the enduring quality of America’s Asian commitments," she said.

Koike referred to the "secretive nature" of China’s military build-up, and its leaders’ "increasingly aggressive tone" in territorial disputes with India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Assertive posture

In recent months, U.S. allies in Southeast Asia have witnessed the Chinese military's increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has accused Chinese boats of harassing a Vietnamese oil exploration ship in the region while the Philippines filed protests with the United Nations citing six Chinese intrusions from February to May in waters it said were clearly within its maritime economic zone.

A longtime Washington ally, the Philippines pointedly asked the U.S. whether it would honor both its mutual defense treaty and its strategic alliance in the face of threats from China.

"We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday. Manila also requested equipment to upgrade its aged fleet in light of the friction with China.

Additionally, the United States plans to hold joint exercises with the Philippines next week and the U.S. Navy will visit Vietnam next month, although U.S. officials have described the events as routine.

Amid the escalating tensions, China had warned the United States not to let Southeast Asian countries drag it into the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

It said that it would not resort to the use of force in the disputes, but has also warned the United States to stay out of territorial spats.

"I believe the individual countries are playing with fire," China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai warned.

Last week, Beijing sent a maritime patrol vessel to the disputed waters.

Chinese state media said the Haixun 31 was China's largest maritime patrol ship. It is outfitted with a helicopter and capable of staying at sea for up to 40 days.

Flashpoint

“I am increasingly concerned that the South China Sea is becoming a flashpoint,” U.S. Senator John McCain, a former navy captain and prisoner of war in Vietnam, told a Washington forum this week.

"This situation requires a little straight talk: One of the main forces exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea, and making a peaceful resolution of these disputes harder to achieve, is the aggressive behavior of China and the unsubstantiated territorial claims that it seeks to advance," he said.

The Republican senator called for expanded U.S. military and political support to Southeast Asian nations to stand up against China and sought a "policy of clarity" rather than a "policy of ambiguity" on the U.S. position on the South China Sea.

McCain and Democratic Senator Jim Webb are among a group of lawmakers who have been outspoken on the raging issue.

“I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this,” said Webb, who introduced a resolution to condemn China’s use of military force in the South China Sea.

“When we say the United States government doesn’t have a position on sovereignty issues, not taking a position is taking a position,” he said.