Subject: AFP: US sees Indonesia, Vietnam as strategic allies in SE Asia

US sees Indonesia, Vietnam as strategic allies in SE Asia

Tuesday May 03 2005 10:35:27 AM BDT

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, Washington :The United States is eyeing Muslim giant Indonesia and erstwhile enemy Vietnam as potential strategic allies in Southeast Asia as it moves to expand a counter-terrorism drive and contain China’s growing influence in the region.

At present, the United States has three close allies in the region­treaty allies the Philippines and Thailand as well as key security partner Singapore.

Strong US-Vietnam relations will be an effective bulwark against any Chinese regional military expansion while Indonesia is crucial in the US ‘war on terror,’ of which predominantly-Muslim Southeast Asia is seen as a key front, analysts say.

Ahead of groundbreaking visits by the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, of Indonesia and the Vietnam prime minister, Phan Van Khai, to Washington this summer, the deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, will hold critical discussions with the two leaders during his 10-day visit to Southeast Asia beginning Monday.

It is the highest level American visit to the region since the president, George W Bush, launched his second term in office earlier this year.

Zoellick is expected to discuss prospective security partnerships with the Indonesian and Vietnamese leaders on top of identifying areas for economic cooperation.

The Vietnamese ‘have been very, very interested in strengthening the overall relationship,’ he told reporters in Washington ahead of the visit. ‘Economics is one of the drivers but there is very strong security interest. This is obviously true for a country like Indonesia too.’

For Vietnam, which is eager to erase the bitter memories of its war with America three decades ago, any security cooperation with the United States will ease its increasing fears about neighbouring China’s rapid military expansion.

Vietnam and China are ideological comrades but historical foes. China invaded Vietnam in February 1979 following Hanoi’s intervention in Cambodia to oust Beijing’s Khmer Rouge allies.

They came to blows again in 1988 in the disputed Spratly Islands, a potentially oil-rich archipelago in the South China Sea.

US-Vietnam military ties received a boost with the visit of Hanoi’s defence minister to the Pentagon in November 2003. American aircraft carriers have docked at the central Vietnamese port of Danang, a former US military base, and discussions are underway for joint training programmes.

Zoellick has hinted US backing for Vietnam’s membership in the World Trade Organisation this year based on ‘some good progress’ on the reform front but also cited ‘strong dialogue’ to push for greater freedom, including respect for freedom of religion, in the communist state.

Ernest Bower, an American expert on US-Southeast Asian relations, said Bush, and Khai should signal to the world that bilateral ties were moving forward.

‘They should do this by advancing Vietnams membership in the WTO, ending post-war vestiges, announcing next steps in military cooperation, and witnessing the signing significant business deals,’ said the former president of the US-ASEAN Business Council.

Zoellick also said the United States wanted to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation with Indonesia, where experts believe the al-Qaeda Southeast Asian chapter Jemaah Islamiyah’s operational and support infrastructure remains very much intact.

AFP/ The New Age BD

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