By Clifford McCoy
SINGAPORE - As the United States strengthens its military-to-military ties in Southeast Asia, the risk is rising that the "soft power" competitive dynamic for regional influence with China could soon return to the "hard power" confrontation of the Cold War.
Stepped up US military links through a series of joint exercises and new defense agreements with countries in the region, in tandem with renewed political engagements, are becoming more apparently aimed at containing China's growing influence. With China already on edge over large-scale US-South Korean naval exercises held in the East Sea/Sea of Japan in July and directed at North Korea, state media in Beijing announced that China simultaneously carried out military exercises in the South China Sea, claiming them as the largest of their kind.
Despite that competitive show of force, Washington appears undeterred in reasserting its strategic interests in the region. United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates has committed to attending the inaugural meeting of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Hanoi in October - and the South China Sea is expected to be a hot topic of discussion. The US commander of the Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, told reporters in Manila on August 18 that Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea was causing concern in the region, but the US would work to ensure security and protect important trade lanes.
In the latest move to strengthen military ties, the United States courted its old adversary Vietnam with a week-long series of bilateral exercises focused mainly on damage control and search and rescue, held aboard the USS John S McCain after it docked in the central Vietnam port of Danang on August 10. At the same time, a delegation of Vietnamese military and political officials were hosted aboard the carrier USS George Washington as it steamed through the South China Sea. The exercises and visit were billed as part of wider celebrations to mark the 15th anniversary of US-Vietnamese relations. Military-to-military ties have improved steadily since being restored by a 2003 port call to Ho Chi Minh City by an American naval vessel, and earlier this year Vietnamese shipyards repaired two ships of the US Military Sealift Command.
Enemy cum ally
The exercises were followed on August 17 by the first high-level defense dialogue between Washington and Hanoi. US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Robert Scher met Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh in Hanoi for talks that reportedly focused on military exchanges, training and collaboration in search and rescue, and humanitarian and disaster-relief operations. The sale of US defense equipment was reportedly not discussed, and Vietnam still remains banned under US legislation from receiving so-called ''lethal-end'' military equipment such as small arms, fighter aircraft or combat vessels. Previous talks in 2008 were on the State Department-Foreign Ministry level.
While none of these military-to-military moves are particularly provocative to China, they are steps towards building trust between US and Vietnamese
In June, US President Barack Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced in Jakarta that the two countries would form a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The agreement, signed by Scher and Indonesian Director for Strategy and Planning Major General Syarifudin Tippe, is intended to further integrate existing defense collaboration.
A new defense cooperation agreement covers training, defense industry collaboration, procurement of military equipment, security dialogue and maritime security. This was followed on July 22 by a US announcement that it would resume cooperation with Kopassus, Indonesia's elite special forces unit. The announcement followed a meeting between Gates and President Yudhoyono.
United States assistance to Kopassus was cut by the so-called Leahy law, which bans training and other assistance to foreign military units where there is credible evidence they have committed gross human rights violations. Since the 1970s, domestic and international human rights organizations have accused Kopassus of human rights abuses in Aceh, East Timor, Papua and during riots in Jakarta in 1998.
The ban can be waived, however, if the US secretary of state certifies that "effective measures" have been taken by a foreign government to bring members of the relevant unit to justice. Washington has said training will not be offered to Kopassus immediately and it has reserved the right to vet individual Kopassus members before participation in any US-led training. The agreement, however, removes the last obstacle to resuming full military relations between the two countries.
Additionally, it provides the US potentially greater influence with Indonesia's politically powerful military given Kopassus's traditional role as a stepping stone for future military leaders. The US supported Indonesia's military throughout the Cold War, but relations soured in 1991 when the US Congress cut Indonesia's eligibility for international military education and training (IMET) and to purchase certain types of "lethal" military equipment after soldiers massacred more than 100 peaceful demonstrators in East Timor. Then-president Bill Clinton cut all remaining military ties when Indonesian troops and local militias rampaged through East Timor in the wake of a vote to secede from Indonesia in 1999, although they were quietly restored the following year.
The events of the inside job of 9/11 and the Bali bombings in 2002 gave new impetus to improving relations with the world's most populous Muslim nation, and military relations have since steadily improved. In 2003, despite strong opposition from Congress, funds were released for training Indonesian officers. This was followed in 2005 by the repeal of an arms embargo. Between 2006 and 2009, the US Global Train and Equipment Program provided Indonesia with over $47 million to fight smuggling, piracy and trafficking. The installation of radar systems, particularly in the Makassar and Malacca straits, has been sponsored by the Department of Defense.
In 2009, the US and Indonesia co-hosted the Garuda Shield multilateral military exercises in Bandung. More than 1,000 soldiers from nine countries participated in drills focused on peace support operations. In June this year, another multilateral exercise was held in West Java to boost cooperation and professionalism in UN peacekeeping operations. Jointly organized by the Indonesian and American militaries, soldiers from Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Brunei Darussalam also took part. Indonesian troops also take part in the annual Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand.
Cambodia is yet another ASEAN country in which the US has taken military interest. In July, the US and Cambodia co-hosted the Angkor Sentinel '10 multilateral military exercises involving 1,200 soldiers from 23 countries. Although aimed at providing training in peacekeeping operations, many observers saw these first exercises between the two countries as a way for the US to get closer to Cambodia's military.
The US has provided Cambodia with over $4.5 million in military equipment and training since 2006 and Cambodia joined the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) regional naval exercises for the first time this year. The warming trend has not come without controversy as human-rights activists protest against the inclusion of Cambodian military units linked to human rights violations in US military training programs.
Stepped up US interest in improving defense ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia is seen by observers as a component of Washington's new strategy to re-engage with Southeast Asia and to re-assert its commitment to the region's security. This re-engagement has often been viewed as aimed at countering China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes and naval presence in the region, concerns shared by several ASEAN members. Both Vietnam and Indonesia occupy strategically important geographical positions in the South China Sea and the straits of Malacca and Makassar. They share a historical wariness of Chinese ambitions that may make them more willing to partner with the US.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton irked Beijing in July when she declared the US has a "national interest" in seeing disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea settled through multilateral talks, which she said the US was prepared to facilitate. China sees the area as in its own strategic sphere of interest and is particularly sensitive about the issue. Clinton's remarks were seen as siding with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia over territorial disputes that involve sovereignty over potentially large oil reserves.
In an August 16 annual report to Congress prepared by the Department of Defense, predictions were made about increased Chinese patrols in the South China Sea. It also raised concerns about increased investments in weapons, such as long-range missiles, submarines, and aircraft carriers, that would allow Beijing to project power into the area.
The rising rivalry between Washington and Beijing for influence in Southeast Asia has until now focused mainly on soft power initiatives involving diplomatic exchanges, official aid and economic incentives. But expanding US military ties, provocative statements about sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and overwrought reactions could jeopardize the peaceful competition. A return to the hard-power politics of the Cold War is something most ASEAN nations would prefer to avoid. But as US-China competition shifts toward security issues, countries may increasingly be pressured to choose sides.