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Losing Focus on Asia-Pacific Region

By Richard Halloran

In its own understated way, the Congressional Research Service in Washington has waved a red flag in front of the new Congress and urged it to pay attention to the rise of China, Islamist militancy and other troubles in Asia.

The CRS warns, in a fresh report, that the preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East means the U.S. "is not sufficiently focused on the Asia-Pacific region at a critical point in the evolution of what may prove to be a new era."

Failure to attend to a less-than-peaceful rise of China, tensions over Taiwan and conflict on the Korean peninsula, the report contends, "has the potential to embroil the United States in a large-scale war that could be very costly in terms of lives, wealth, power and prestige."

Moreover, terrorist groups in Southeast and South Asia are "a key source of instability, a threat to U.S. forces and interests, and could serve as a catalyst for inter-state conflict," says the report on U.S. strategic and defense relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

The CRS has sought, and mostly achieved, a reputation for cautious, balanced and non-partisan analyses for its premier client, Congress, and thus often exercises considerable influence. Its lament over Washington's inattention to Asia may have extra force today because the Democrats, out of power for 12 years, have just taken control of both houses and are in a feisty mood.

The CRS report echoes comments made last summer in a seminar at the East-West Center, the research and educational institute here, when Asians and Americans alike criticized the Bush administration for neglecting Asia.

James Kelly, the assistant secretary who had headed the East Asia division of the State Department during President George W. Bush's first term, said: "There is an insufficient realization that Asia has become the center of gravity," meaning the focal point of political, economic and military power. "Policy and strategy toward East Asia," he said, "are not easy to discern."

Similarly, Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and South Korea, asserted: "The administration can't deal with more than one or two issues at a time." He said that, by 2009 when the next president takes office, power in Asia "will have shifted while we were not paying attention."

Other voices have cautioned that potentially damaging trends in Asia, especially in China, are being overlooked in the U.S. Fred Bergsten, an economist and former senior Treasury official, says China's undervalued currency "could have a devastating impact on the global trading system."

"It is obvious that China is extremely reluctant to make the needed changes in its currency policy," he told a House committee two weeks ago. "It is equally obvious that U.S. efforts on the issue over the past three years ... have borne little fruit to date. A new U.S. policy is clearly needed."

Dan Steinbock, a consultant on information technology writing in The National Interest Magazine, says the conventional wisdom among American business executives holds that the U.S. will continue to lead in innovation even after much manufacturing has moved to China and India.

"The conventional wisdom," he asserts, "is a myth." Innovation has become a buzzword in Beijing and New Delhi while Taiwan and South Korea have joined Japan among the top 10 countries in patents, all of which makes them more competitive with the U.S. "Talent, intelligence and enterprise," he says, "are not exclusively Western or American characteristics."

The CRS study written by analyst Bruce Vaughn notes: "The relative lack of attention to Asia comes at a time when the correlates of power are shifting not only with regard to China but elsewhere in Asia." Therefore, it asserts, some Asian nations "are beginning to hedge against what they perceive as an increasingly distracted and insufficiently engaged American power."

"This perceived American vulnerability and uncertainty about America's future role in Asia is leading some Asian analysts to predict," the report says, "that the United States will enter into a 'new phase of inner absorption, if not increasing isolationism,' " quoting Eric Teo Chow Cheow, a scholar in Singapore.

Japan and Australia are seen as solid U.S. allies while the U.S. has "key strategic relationships" with Singapore, India, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Elsewhere, however, the U.S. and South Korea "are drifting apart" and Thailand prefers "equidistance" between the U.S. and China. New Zealand has dropped out of its alliance with the U.S., and relations with the Philippines, which is struggling with an Islamic insurgency in its south, are tenuous.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

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