Washington - If the Bush administration has its way, two countries which have had a chequered relationship with Washington may emerge as key pillars ofAmerica’s strategy in Asia. As the United States seeks to expand its war against terror and contain China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, Indonesia andVietnam are now seen as potential strategic allies for Uncle Sam.
The US currently has three close allies in the region – key security partner Singapore and treaty allies, the Philippines and Thailand. From the American vantage point, strong relations with Vietnam will be an effective bulwark against any Chinese regional military expansion. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is seen as crucial in Washington’s global counter-terrorism drive.
In a sign of the two countries’ growing importance, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai are scheduled to make ground-breaking trips to Washington later this year.
US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who will start a nine-day trip to Asia this week, said Washington is planning an aggressive effort to build economic, political and security links with Southeast Asian countries.
He said the US wants to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation with Indonesia and help it regain its leadership role in Asean.
As for Vietnam, its leaders “have been very, very interested in strengthening the overall relationship”, Mr Zoellick said. “Economics is one of the drivers but there is very strong security interest. This is obviously true for countries like Indonesia too.”
For Vietnam, which is eager to erase the bitter memories of its war with America three decades ago, any security cooperation with the US will ease its increasing fears about neighbouring China’s rapid military expansion.
Mr Zoellick, while noting that China has been “very shrewd” in recent years in making its “size and weight and influence” felt in the region, said the US is not out to block China.
“For me, the theme is not US versus China in Southeast Asia. We need a response with an activist set of policies, not by complaining about other people’s policies,” said the US No.2 diplomat.
* US wants Jakarta, Hanoi as strategic allies (The Straits Times, May 2)