US forces ‘to stay in Asia, but new initiatives unlikely’

THE US will keep its military presence in Asia, but was unlikely to take the lead in pursuing initiatives in the region as the Clinton administration comes to terms with its mid-term elections defeat, a defence expert has said.

Professor Paul Hammond, who is visiting the Institute of South-east Asian Studies (Iseas), told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday that both the Democrats and Republicans would back the continued US military presence in Asia.

But both parties were likely to split on exact US force levels the region, he said. As a result, Washington was unlikely to develop new initiatives through the Asean Regional Forum and its bilateral security arrangements with countries like Japan.

He said that a divided government in Washington would see a slowing down of American security initiatives in Asia.

“There will be a more passive, time-marking security policy towards Asia,” said the former director of Asian and Strategic Studies at the Rand Corporation, a California-based think-tank.

Prof Hammond, who now heads the International Security Studies Center at Pittsburg University, said it was difficult to see the US finding new ways to keep its forces in Asia besides its current plan to build a floating arsenal in the Gulf of Thailand.

He said that Washington’s policy towards Asia had “run out of steam” over the last year as a result of its domestic priorities and other pressing international issues in the form of Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr Winston Lord, had taken “some effective initiatives” in Asia in the first months of the Clinton administration, he said.

“But it appears that the momentum of his efforts dissipated and the US has been marking time since then.”

Turning to US economic links with the region, he said that the Republican Party was likely to adopt a more moderate stance on trade policies towards Asian countries, which under the Democrats were linked to human rights.

“If that happens, one might see an even softer position on human rights than the one that has recently developed with the Clinton administration,” he said.

Earlier, in a seminar organised by Iseas called Clinton’s Asia Policy After the Mid-Term Elections, Prof Hammond said that the President lacked experience in foreign policy.

“If Mr Clinton does not provide foreign policy leadership, his team may take on that role for him to some extent. But they cannot substitute wholly for presidential leadership.”

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