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US-Asia Relations – The China factor

Updated On: Oct 03, 2006

The United States in responding to the rise of China, the threat from North Korea and terrorism in the Asian region will embark on a major revamp of the policy-making arm of the Pentagon. 

An Asia portfolio headed by an assistant defense secretary will be created to reflect the increasing importance of Asia in US policy-making considerations.  The new assistant defense secretary will have three deputies covering North-East AsiaCentral Asia and the last, South and Southeast Asia. The change is also aimed at improving the coordination among the US government agencies and foreign allies in the war against terror.

The importance of Southeast Asia to the US strategic interests was reiterated in another partly declassified terror report. The report, National Intelligence Estimate highlighted the danger posed by a terrorist group- the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)- in Southeast Asia. It indicated that while terrorist groups such as the JI might not be as dangerous as Al Qaeda, they are likely to “expand their reach” and become more “capable of mass-casualty attacks outside their traditional areas of operation.”

However, this renewed focus on the threat of terrorism in the region is likely to result in tension with some of the Southeast Asian states. For instance, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has expressed irritation at the US’ refusal to allow access to Hambali, an Indonesian terrorist currently held in Guantanamo Bay. Kalla’s remarked after meeting with National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, “I don’t understand why the US is being difficult in granting us access to Hambali.” He added, “I have requested access, but they appear to be very reluctant to disclose the simplest form of information about Hambali.” According to the US government, Hambali is an operational mastermind in JI and had been the interface between JI and Al Qaeda from 2000 until his capture in 2003 in Thailand.

Another possible area of tension is the US’ inclusion of a number of Asian countries in its list of violators of religious freedom. The US has included six Asian nations-AfghanistanBruneiIndiaLaosPakistan and Sri Lanka on a list of “significant” violators of religious freedom in the US State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom report. The inclusion of these countries is in addition to the list of “worst offenders” in the region, namely, ChinaMyanmarNorth Korea andVietnam.

Compared to the USChina seems to have adopted a more amicable approach. For instance, a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) anti-terror official has said that the SCO is considering cooperating with ASEAN in fighting terrorism. Earlier in August, China had held the first ever joint SCO anti-terrorism drill, “Tianshan-I” exercise, with Kazakhstan. This involved both countries’ law enforcement bodies and special forces. Although there has yet to be much public response to the initiative, the ASEAN members are likely to agree to the initiative. Ironically, it seems that while the US might be paying more attention to Asia, it still has some way to go in learning to see less of the negative aspects and more of the positive areas for cooperation. Here, China seems to have a slight edge in its diplomacy and subtlety in the region.

Sources

US Terror Report: JI Likely to “Expand Their Reach” (Today, 30 September 2006)

ChinaExclusive: SCO Considers Working With ASEAN in Fight Against Terrorism (Xinhua General News, 29 September 2006)

Kalla Irked by US Refusal to Grant Access to Hambali (Jakarta Post, 30 September 2006)