US, China rivalry puts countries in dilemma
Washington's planned strategic shift to Asia will challenge existing alliances as nations try to balance strong economic ties to China with defence links to Washington, a conference heard yesterday.
Many Asian countries have major business relations with China but are also defence allies of the United States.
"The political, economic and cultural ramifications of a newly-empowered Asia are bound to impact existing security and economic relationships," Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a conference on security issues.
He cited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Australia, Japan and South Korea -- which all have China as their biggest trading partner but consider the US as the "dominant resident security power" in the region.
"This divergence of economic partnerships and defence relations will challenge existing alignments among nations," Ng told the conference, which ended Sunday. "No nation wants to be in a position to choose sides."
Addressing the conference Saturday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington will gradually shift its naval fleet so that by 2020 it will have 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific, up from the current 50 percent.
The decision to deploy more ships to the Pacific Ocean, along with expanding military partnerships in the region, was part of a "steady, deliberate" effort to bolster the US role in an area deemed vital to its future, Panetta said.
The move reflects US concern over China's rising economic and military might but Panetta insisted the strategy was not a challenge to Beijing.
Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Sunday welcomed the US plan and said it should not impact Canberra's relationship with China.
Australia will see 2,500 US Marines deployed to its north as part of the Asia strategy, a move that has rankled Beijing, but Smith said he would make clear in a visit to China this week that Canberra wanted to continue to deepen its relationship with the Asian giant.
New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman also welcomed the US shift.
Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysia will continue work with both China and the US.
"If the purpose is to stabilise the region... we would welcome the effort taken by the US," he told AFP in Singapore.
Meanwhile, reacting on the US move, France yesterday said Europe needed to rethink its defence strategy.
"In the coming 10 years, the US budget for defence is going to be diminished by about $500 billion," said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian .
"On the other hand, the United States have announced that they would give a priority to the Asia-Pacific region. Somewhere there will be a hole and it will be in Europe," he added.