Iraq crisis 'won't distract US from Asia focus'

The United States can intervene in the ongoing Iraq crisis without losing its long-term focus on Asia, says Washington's top Asia diplomat Daniel Russel, stressing both the White House's continued commitment to the East and its ability to work on multiple fronts at once.

In an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, Mr Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said the US has demonstrated before that its policy is not a zero-sum game - it can and has dealt with problems on multiple fronts at the same time.

"We don't have the luxury of majoring in one topic to the exclusion of another," he said. "But there is an important distinction to be made between the sustained long-term investment the US is making in the Asia-Pacific region and the necessity of dealing with crises and the challenges that confront the West and the US on a short-term basis."

Mr Russel added that even in the "dark days" of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US never abandoned Asia.

"There is no doubt as hundreds of thousands of US troops flew into the Middle East, a tremendous amount of political attention went with it. That's not the situation that we are looking at today in any shape, with regard to Iraq or the Middle East. The US is not overextended in a large-scale land war. The US is not exclusively oriented to our Middle East policies and problems," he said at his office in the State Department building in Washington.

Over the course of an hour, Mr Russel embarked on a stout, often lengthy defence of the rebalance, as he addressed nearly every recent criticism of President Barack Obama's Pacific strategy.

At the top of the list was the surprising omission of Asia from Mr Obama's foreign policy speech at West Point Military Academy last month. That address, said Mr Russel, was meant to deal narrowly with the President's thoughts on the use of force, particularly on the issue of terrorism. He also noted that the speech came just weeks after Mr Obama completed a four-nation tour of Asia.

And while Asia was not explicitly mentioned, Mr Russel said the Obama doctrine also applied to a tense Asian region unnerved by an increasingly assertive China. In laying out the case for being more selective in its use of military strength, he said the message from the White House to the region was this: Restraint is a sign of strength, not weakness.

"Being strong means that you don't have to look tough," he said.

He also dismissed suggestions that the US had not done enough to intervene in the spat between Vietnam and China that erupted after Beijing placed an oil rig in disputed waters last month. Mr Russel said he happened to be in Vietnam early last month when the issue emerged and received no such feedback from his Vietnamese interlocutors.

"It is not my experience and I don't believe that it is true that the Vietnamese were dissatisfied. There was nothing that the Vietnamese asked the US to do. They were not asking the Seventh Fleet to sweep in and clear the area."

He also reiterated the US policy of being direct with China on their disagreements, even if the straight talk has taken Sino-US ties to their lowest point in years.

"In terms of our differences, in the areas where we can see China's behaviour as destabilising or inconsistent with international rules and norms, we are compelled to speak out, and when speaking privately and diplomatically to the Chinese yields no effect, we will, as needed, speak out publicly. And when public opprobrium has no effect, we will take actions as appropriate. But we do this in the context of a very broad and robust relationship."

And though a recent move by the US to indict five Chinese army officers for cyberspying was seen by some as unnecessarily provocative, he argues that America's allies expect no less from it.

"If we were prepared to sit by quietly and not object, how much faith would Singapore have in the US commitment to the rule of law? How much faith would Singapore have in the US as a guarantor of other rights of the little guy when we wouldn't even stand up for the rights of our own companies?"

This article was first published on June 20, 2014.
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