Secretary of State Colin Powell embarks later this month on an eight-country Asia mission aimed at lowering tensions between India and Pakistan, and solidifying relations with South East Asian countries that have become key in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Officials here had already announced Mr. Powell's stops in India and Pakistan, and in Brunei where he will attend an ASEAN regional forum. But State Department Richard Boucher noted that the secretary of state will also visit Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in a trip that underscores the importance of Southeast Asia in the terrorism fight.
"You have a number of close U.S. partners and allies in the region including, Thailand, which is a U.S. ally," he said. "We have major interests in this region of Southeast Asia. We have two of the most important. I think Indonesia is probably the largest Muslim country in the world. Malaysia is also an important Muslim country, and we just had a recent visit by the leader of Malaysia. So we have important relationships out there that are vital to our economic, political, diplomatic future as well as our security interests."
The United States has sent military trainers to help the Philippines in its fight against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, and has worked closely on anti-terrorism matters with Singapore, which early this year broke up a cell of the al-Qaeda terror network said to have been planning attacks on Western embassies and U-S Navy ships.
Mr. Powell's mission will begin with stops in Pakistan and India, where he will try build on progress made in recent visits by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that have helped to ease tensions between the South Asian powers over Kashmir.
In particular, Mr. Boucher said the secretary wants to assure that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's pledge to halt the infiltration of Muslim militants across the "line of control" in Kashmir is a permanent commitment, and is matched by Indian steps to further ease the military confrontation that threatened to erupt into war in May.
"President Musharraf has said that that's a permanent change," said Mr. Boucher. "He's made that commitment to us, and we've conveyed it to the Indian government. And we all want to see that happen, that this does remain a permanent change. And second of all, we want to see the continued action that he's talked about, like the action against camps and groups. So we want to see those things continue. We also want to see a continuation of steps on the Indian side to ease off and de-escalate the situation."
Mr. Powell has visited India and Pakistan twice since taking office last year, the most recent visit coming last January after another flare-up of Kashmir-related tensions. The Bush administration has not sought to mediate the long-standing territorial dispute, but instead to promote dialogue on the issue between the parties themselves.