US invites key Asian allies to be Nato partners

Move seen as a strategy to counter Russian and Chinese military ambitions.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush goes to the Nato summit next week with plans to draw key allies in Asia into the Atlantic alliance, expanding its reach to the region.

Japan, Australia and South Korea have been invited to the summit in Riga, Latvia, to take part in a “partnership arrangement” that some see as part of US strategy to constrain not just Russian, but Chinese military ambitions in Asia.

The three countries, however, would not seek membership in the 26-country alliance.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters yesterday: “We seek a partnership with them so that we can train more intensively, from a military point of view, and grow closer to them because we are deployed with them.

“Our agenda with Europe is now a global agenda, and it tends to be about the rest of the world; about what we can do as partners in the Middle East, in South and East Asia, in Africa and in Latin America.”

Created to protect post-war Western Europe from the Soviet Union, Nato is now clearly extending both its geographic reach and range of its operations. It has played peacekeeper in Afghanistan, trained security forces in Iraq, and given logistical support to the African Union’s mission in Darfur in recent years.

The alliance also assisted the tsunami relief effort in Indonesia and ferried supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US and to those of a massive earthquake in Pakistan.

Washington has been particularly keen on Nato’s expansion with US forces stretched thin in Iraq and European states unwilling to participate in military operations far away from home. As a result of US prodding, Nato has gradually deepened ties with several countries beyond the transatlantic community.

Australia, for example, is the biggest non-Nato contributor to the alliance-led force of about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Israel and six Arab countries are also partners with the organisation. Analysts see the partnership arrangement with Australia, Japan and South Korea – together with Finland and Sweden – as part of a process to forge a “global Nato alliance”.

Professor William Tow, an international relations expert at the Australian National University in Canberra, noted that the broad aim was to bridge “future coalitions of the willing” to Nato’s command structure. It was an informal “opportunistic” initiative to streamline cooperation in a low-key and indirect manner, he told The Straits Times.

The Pentagon has been revamping its global military strategy in recent years to deal with multiple threats, including from Islamic extremism and a rising China. It has compelled Washington to supplement traditional bases in North-east Asia with new access arrangements and facilities in Central, South Asia and South-east Asia, extending to Guam.

China’s growing economic and military power, above anything else, is shaping American force posture in Asia.

That fact has not been lost on Beijing. China has watched with increasing concern US moves to counter Chinese military buildup in recent years.

Nato’s enlargement in recent years adds to these fears. The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said in June: “With its tentacles stretching further and further …Nato’s forces are exceeding the ‘defensive mode’ and are going hand-in-hand with the US global strategy…Nato’s great ambition draws concern.”

Interestingly, the Riga summit takes place just weeks before China and Russia announced plans to hold the first full-scale exercises involving all the six member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Some see the SCO moving in the direction of a Eurasian military confederacy to rival Nato and squeeze out American presence in Central Asia.

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