Originally Published 2011-12-02 00:00:00 Published on Dec 02, 2011
In the Asia-Pacific region, the US has made its return in an effective manner and this is likely to continue without any time limit. By marking his attendance at the Bali conference, President Obama became the first US President to attend a summit of East Asian leaders, a region that China sees as its rightful sphere of influence.
US makes impressive moves in Asia Pacific
The 6th annual East Asia Summit in Bali (Indonesia), held recently, witnessed the return of the US to the Asia-Pacific scene in a big way. By marking his attendance at Bali, President Obama became the first US President to attend a summit of East Asian leaders, a region that China sees as its rightful sphere of influence.

Since the end of World War-II, the US has always been at the centre-stage of Asian affairs but in recent years China has emerged as a regional power with worrying assertions in many areas, giving rise to serious apprehensions on the part of Asian nations. Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have maritime as well as territorial disputes with China. China's unreasonable claim over the South China Sea has alarmed not only the Asian nations but also other powers which have a stake in Asia. It is in this context that President Obama's visit to Bali to attend the East Asia Summit was important. It signifies Washington's readiness to play its role as a strategic partner with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a security arrangement under which 250 marines - their number would be subsequently expanded to 2500 - would be stationed at Damien, at the northern-most part of Australia.

Before heading for Bali, President Obama was in Australia where he entered into a strategic pact with an agreement to station American forces at Australian forward bases like Darwin in the extreme north of the country. The location of forces in Darwin would supplement and add extra muscle to the presence of American forces at Guam, south of China, where about 12,000 US marines are permanently stationed. The Guam base supplements the Okinawa base where the US has a larger force of marines, stationed ever since the end of World War-II.

President Obama said the agreement with Australia reflected the US stepping up its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and it was not targeted at China. He went on to say that the notion that America feared China was mistaken. However, China showed its reservations and expressed the view that an increase in military alliances with the US would not be in the interest of the countries in the region. China also warned Australia that it risked harming its economic ties with China, which is Australia's largest trade partner, especially in respect of its minerals.

The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, said that the goal of the new security pact was to signal that the US and Australia would stick together in the face of any threats. Panetta disclosed that in addition to the extended marine presence in Australia, more US aircraft will rotate through Australia as part of an agreement between each nation's air force. Australian Prime Minister Gillard said the increased air presence would allow the US and Australia to more effectively respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region. Obama told the Australian Parliament that the US intended to deter threats to peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

He also promised to help the Philippines with a second warship next year. It is noteworthy that Obama unveiled a plan for an expanded US marines' presence in the Pacific region and advocated a new free trade area that left out China and called on Beijing not to disturb the current world order. China responded by saying that the US was over-reacting. An analyst commented that China felt bewildered by the Obama initiative.

Moving Westwards, towards the crucial West Asian region, American presence in Afghanistan is now almost certain to continue beyond 2014 in one form or another. President Obama had announced long back that the American forces would be completely pulled out of Afghanistan by 2014. However, the US and Afghanistan are now entering into a strategic partnership which might come into effect when the US pulls out most of its forces. Limiting the US-Afghanistan strategic pact which would continue beyond 2014 was outlined by Afghan President Hamid Karzai before a "loya jirga" which consisted of 2200 elders from the various provinces and regions of Afghanistan.

Before the day-long jirga commenced on November 16, President Karzai told the elders that Afghanistan was looking for a long-term US troop presence after the NATO combat forces, including US troops, left the country. He said he wanted Afghan-US relations to be those of two independent countries and assured the neighbours like China and Russia that a long-term deal with the US would not affect Afghanistan's ties with them. In his address to the jirga, Karzai said, "We want our national sovereignty and we want it today, and henceforth our relationship with America would be one of two independent countries."

President Karzai said Afghanistan was willing to host US troops on a long-term basis since it would be in Afghanistan's interest. Afghan forces would be trained and financial help would also be forthcoming.

The US insistence that it is not staking a permanent military presence and instead it is looking for ways to help Afghanistan's security forces with intelligence sharing, air power and logistics beyond 2014. US officials said that a deal might involve shared facilities.

It is 10 years since the US-led NATO combat forces entered Afghanistan to deal with Al Qaida and Taliban forces. After the elimination of Osama bin Laden and containment of the Taliban, to a considerable degree, in Afghanistan as well as in the adjoining tribal region of Pakistan, the larger military objective of the US has been, by and large, fulfilled.

President Karzai badly needs the US forces based in Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other insurgent groups operating out of their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

In the US itself, many are asking if it is necessary for America to prolong its costly and ineffectual military involvement there. However, even many in the Republican Party are saying that the US troops must stay on in Afghanistan until the job is done. Before the next round of international conference on Afghanistan in Berlin, Washington hopes to conclude a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan.

Taking a holistic view of the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, it is almost certain that the US and possibly a section of the NATO military forces would continue to remain in Afghanistan in some form with no time limit - whether it is for training purposes or for sharing intelligence. The base in Afghanistan is indispensable for the US. In the Asia-Pacific region, the US has made its return in an effective manner and this is likely to continue without any time limit. All countries in Asia as well as the Asia-Pacific region welcome the US presence, with the sole exception of China, which is understandable.

(The writer, a former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, was the Governor of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. He is currently an Advisor to ORF)

Courtesy: The Tribune

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