American military presence in Asia ‘serves US’ interests’

US DEFENCE Secretary William Cohen yesterday maintained that American military presence in Asia was “critical” to maintaining its national interest.

Mr Cohen, who is on a seven-nation tour of the region to underscore US defence commitments, said that America stood to lose considerably if it pulled its forces out from Asia completely.

“If the US is not here, then another country would fill the vacuum,” he told businessmen and diplomats attending his luncheon talk.

“It could be China, Japan, India, Pakistan or an Asean country and it might not necessarily be in ways that will be friendly to our interests, triggering conflict.”

In this respect, he said that Washington would continue to maintain a forward military presence in Asia with its network of bilateral agreements with various countries, including Japan, South Korea and, most recently, the Philippines.

He disclosed that an agreement on naval-engagement rules would be concluded with China during his trip to Beijing later this week.

He said: “All these agreements show that we are committed to the security of this region.

“We have strong bilateral relations which we hope to build on them and extend it to a multilateral level. Such a presence helps to maintain prosperity levels in Asia.”

Noting that there were occasional queries from American congressional members on US defence spending in Asia, he said:

“I would try to point out to my colleagues that we are not simply engaged in a charitable exercise wasting taxpayers’ money.

“We are engaged in promoting our own self-interests as well because we share in the prosperity that is generated in this region.”

Earlier, he had talks with President Suharto, Defence Minister Edi Sudradjat and military chief Feisal Tanjung.

It is believed that he had expressed concerns that the current financial crisis could disrupt regional stability and affect US strategic interests.

He said Washington and Jakarta would work together to maintain peace in the region, despite occasional hiccups in ties.

Indonesia, angered at criticism from the US Congress over human rights, cancelled plans to buy US fighter planes and announced that it would instead purchase Russian jets and helicopters.

He acknowledged that there was a “strong minority” in the US Senate and Congress that did not agree with moves to forge closer links with Indonesia. This included the provision of military training programmes like IMET (International Military Education and Training).

“Indonesia and the United States don’t always agree on all issues. We have had differences over human rights, but we have learned to work together on a range of issues for regional security,” he said.

“We seek an expanded focus on the strategic environment in Asia. As the region continues to change, it is important for us to engage in continuing dialogue on problems and solutions.”

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