Washington’s planned strategic shift to Asia will challenge existing alliances as nations try to balance strong economic ties to China with defense links to Washington, a conference heard Sunday.
Many Asian countries have major business relations with China but are also defense allies of the United States.
“The political, economic and cultural ramifications of a newly-empowered Asia are bound to impact existing security and economic relationships,” Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a conference on security issues.
He cited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Australia, Japan and South Korea — which all have China as their biggest trading partner but consider the US as the “dominant resident security power” in the region.
“This divergence of economic partnerships and defense relations will challenge existing alignments among nations,” Ng told the conference, which ended Sunday. “No nation wants to be in a position to choose sides.”
Addressing the conference Saturday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington will gradually shift its naval fleet so that by 2020 it will have 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific, up from the current 50 percent.
The decision to deploy more ships to the Pacific Ocean, along with expanding military partnerships in the region, was part of a “steady, deliberate” effort to bolster the US role in an area deemed vital to its future, Panetta said.
The move reflects US concern over China’s rising economic and military might but Panetta insisted the strategy was not a challenge to Beijing.
Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith on Sunday welcomed the US plan and said it should not impact Canberra’s relationship with China.
Smith, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation shortly after his return from Singapore, said the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region had been “a force for peace and stability and prosperity since the end of World War II.”
Australia will see 2,500 US Marines deployed to its north as part of the Asia strategy, a move that has rankled Beijing, but Smith said he would make clear in a visit to China this week that Canberra wanted to continue to deepen its relationship with the Asian giant.
“The point I’ll make to Chinese friends is that Australia has had a growing relationship with China since we were one of the countries to recognize China very early back in 1972; we’ve had a growing relationship for 40 years,” he said.
New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman also welcomed the US shift.
“We do welcome the US rebalancing down to our region. We see it as providing significant opportunities for training with a like minded partner,” he said at the Singapore conference.
Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysia will continue work with both China and the US.
“If the purpose is to stabilize the region… we would welcome the effort taken by the US,” he told AFP in Singapore.