Asia will remain the Obama administration's No. 1 foreign policy and national security priority, even as the United States faces a "fiscal cliff", a nuclear-happy Iran and a remorseless Al-Qaeda, according to a former senior US defence official.
"Some people have questioned whether the US has the staying power to underwrite its commitment (to Asia)," Michele Flournoy, the former US Under-Secretary of Defence for Policy, said yesterday.
"I would simply paraphrase Mark Twain and say rumours of our untimely demise are premature."
Flournoy, 51, said this in an interview with The Straits Times ahead of her public talk on President Barack Obama's second-term security strategies. The talk yesterday afternoon was hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
One of four people tipped to be the next US Defence Secretary, Flournoy was the first woman to hold the Pentagon's third highest civilian post from 2009 to last year.
In that time, she led talks with her Chinese military counterparts in which she and her team "bent over backwards" to be as transparent about their defence plans as possible, including giving the Chinese the same briefings on, say, US ballistic missile reviews as they had given the US Congress.
She also revealed that the US had for the first time invited China to take part in this year's Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world's largest maritime military exercise held in Hawaii.
All told, she rued how both sides could not quite see eye to eye, with the Chinese wanting to build trust before transparency, while the Americans saw trust as being born of transparency.
Flournoy helped craft the administration's policy to shift its attention to Asia from 2008, or what she called "rebalancing" and some knew as the pivot.
Ultimately, she said, the rebalancing was to safeguard the US' economic future, which now lies largely in Asia.
She took pains to point out that this involved mainly diplomatic and economic, not military, moves, such as high-level meetings with Asian allies; building the new Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade bloc; and forging more comprehensive cooperation with China.
She added that the Defence Department's budget cuts of US$487 billion (S$590 billion) over the next 10 years would not weaken rebalancing efforts because what money it had left would well support the US' increasing military presence in Asia as part of the rebalancing, including having its marines train in Australia and its combat ships stopover in Singapore.
To a question from the audience at her talk on whether or not such capability-building was a way to "contain China by proxy", she retorted: "These forces are not cutting-edge ones that go to war, but are designed to engage with our partners and help them build capabilities."
Indeed, she stressed repeatedly, the rebalancing was in no way an exercise to contain China, Cold War-style, but to maintain the US' traditional role of helping Asia keep the peace, especially given China's ongoing territorial spats with its neighbours.
After all, she said, it was in the US' and China's interests that Asia remained secure, stable and therefore open for business.
As she put it at her talk: "The US would like nothing more than for China to be a partner with it on issues such as nuclear proliferation and climate change. But it really comes down to how it manages its rise in the region."
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