Page last updated at 18:09 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 19:09 UK

Re-engage with Asia, US is urged

By Vaudine England
BBC News

A mosque in Bali, Indonesia
The "war on terror" has not gone down well among Asia's many Muslims
A report by the Asia Foundation says the current US administration has been overly focused on the Middle East and the next incumbents should redirect attention toward Asia.

The United States needs to pay fresh attention to changing security, trade and personal relationships in Asia, the Asia Foundation says.

Concentrating on the Middle East, the report's authors suggest, carries dangers both for the US and for the Asian region, from Afghanistan to Japan.

Some of the experts point to a resurgent China that they say is gaining influence at the expense of the US; they add that without a deliberate dedication of new enthusiasm for Asia, the US risks being left behind.

The US massively underpins regional development, but when you look at the trade statistics, who is the biggest partner? It's China
Nick Thomas, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong

"While the United States has been preoccupied with the situation in the Middle East, the Asian balance has been shifting quietly, if inexorably, in the direction of others.

"China, Japan, India and Russia are casting a longer shadow. Size matters, and they have it," the foundation says.

It also argues that the "war on terror" and its focus on Islam have been damaging, particularly in a region that is home to more Muslims than the Middle East.

"It encouraged excessive emphasis on military force. It conflated a host of differing political forces whose interests often diverged. It persuaded some that the enemy was Islam, rather than a few misguided groups within Islam's ranks," it adds.

Asia's views

The US remains the largest or second largest, trading partner with almost every Asian nation. But its market share is declining, the report says.

Shanghai port
China is replacing the US as many Asian countries' main trading partner

"In this decade, China has replaced the United States as the number one trading partner of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and a number of South East Asian countries," the foundation's report says.

"Trends indicate that China will be South Asia's largest trading partner in the near future," it adds.

Asian states are now "uncertain" about the relevance of US power "given current regional dynamics", the foundation says.

"The United States may still hold the balance of power in Asia, but does this mean that the US necessarily holds the most influence?"

The report also gives a strong sense of Asian dissatisfaction with what might be called the moral leadership of the US.

As part of its war efforts, in Iraq and against "terror", the report suggest that the US "has been inconsistent with its own principles in dealing with terrorist suspects and political prisoners in Guantanamo and abroad".

This has diluted the superpower's ability to promote democracy and the protection of human rights, the foundation says.

Re-engagement wanted

Disappointment with the US does not mean Asia wants total distance from it, however.

"Asia wants the US to be an effective, global leader at a time when China, India, and Russia are increasing their own regional and global power and influence," the foundation notes.

Various authors of the report make eloquent pleas for a fresh look by the US at what Asia has to offer, and at how important it is to US interests.

In the light of recent financial turmoil emanating from Wall Street, that relationship is all the more important, analysts agree, as Asian investment in the US economy helps to support it.

Despite some credit being given to US diplomacy, the report reads at times like a litany of complaints - ranging from the belief that China gave more useful support than the US in the Asian financial crisis in 1997, to anger at what is called a failure to understand bodies such as the Association of South East Asian nations (Asean).

Academics who have read the foundation report told the BBC that the perception of a US disengagement with Asia had some basis.

"But it's not a black and white picture," said Nick Thomas, co-ordinator of the China Asean project at the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

South Korean soldiers
Analysts say the US has, to an extent, disengaged with some regional allies

"The US massively underpins regional development, but when you look at the trade statistics, who is the biggest partner? It's China, not the US," Dr Thomas said.

"Despite all the political rhetoric, there is a perception that the US has become disengaged from the region and that it has started to realise the ramifications of that," he said.

David Zweig, director of the Centre on China's Transnational relations at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, agrees the picture is mixed.

He notes that the US decided to pull back troops from the border between South Korea and North Korea, to withdraw some troops from Okinawa in Japan to Guam, and has recently been less willing to sell arms to Taiwan.

"These are concrete events on the ground. We can't say the US has disengaged, but the general direction appears to suggest some disengagement with its traditional allies," Dr Zweig said.

He said that engagement with China had expanded during the administration of President George W Bush, and that US envoy Christopher Hill had done immense work on talks aimed at denuclearising North Korea.

'Fears overblown'

Concluding a quick visit to East Asia last week, the US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte spoke in Hong Kong about US ties to Asia.

He painted a positive picture, pointing to closer ties with Vietnam, where he had just visited, Indonesia and Cambodia. He detailed a series of initiatives undertaken by the US in China.

"Asia's rise, and especially China's, has also caused many to worry that US influence in Asia would decline. These fears, I believe, are overblown," he said.

"They ignore America's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and underestimate our ability to pursue relations with every major Asian power, including China, in positive-sum terms," he said.

"I want to conclude by stressing America's commitment to strong relations with the rising powers of Asia is bipartisan, and that our interests in the region are enduring," he said.

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