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War on Terror Boosted US Military Relations with Many Countries - 2002-09-06

The U.S. led war on terror has boosted military relations with several nations that used to be held at arms' length by Washington because of concerns about human rights abuses or other policy differences.

When it became clear that an international network of terrorists was responsible for the attacks last September, an obvious question was: where else might the network have cells or operatives? And when some of the signs pointed to Southeast Asia, officials in Washington were eager to engage the governments of the region in the anti-terror campaign.

Over the past year, U.S. officials have tried to work closely with their law enforcement and intelligence gathering counterparts in the region and Washington has strengthened its military cooperation with several countries.

For example, Asian security specialist Sheldon Simon points out the United States has long had a close security relationship with Singapore, which has been instrumental this past year in tracking down suspects linked to the al-Qaida terror network. "We have been stationing, for example, a small naval logistics unit there ever since we left the Philippines bases in the early 1990s," he said. "Singapore also has a new port that is sufficiently large that U.S. Nimitz class carriers can call there and be re-fitted and supplied."

Professor Simon, at Arizona State University, says the security relationship with Singapore, while close, is low key and likely to remain that way.

Japan's constitution prohibits the country's self-defense forces from participating in combat roles. But a month after the September 11 attacks, Japan passed a new law allowing Japanese forces to provide logistical support to the U.S. led campaign in Afghanistan. And Japan's Defense Agency chief recently indicated the country's mission in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea may be extended beyond its November deadline.

Analysts say the biggest impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks, in terms of U.S. military relations in Southeast Asia, was on U.S. - Philippine relations.

For most of the 20th century, the United States had a close security relationship with the Philippines, which provided air and naval bases vital to the American military presence in Asia. After the Philippines expelled American forces from those bases in 1991, a frostiness developed between Manila and Washington.

Thomas Reckford follows Southeast Asian issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Philippine government really didn't want to have much to do with Washington on security issues, and there was a lot of anger and frustration at the Pentagon and in Congress at the way that the Philippine government had treated the U.S. bases," he said. "So, there's a lot of bitterness there."

Mr. Reckford says that changed after September 11. He says Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is a practical person who saw a clear need for U.S. help in fighting the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. "She recognized that the Philippine army was really very badly equipped, very badly led, and wasn't able to do the job to combat homegrown terrorism in the Philippines," said Mr. Reckford. "I think we have to be a little careful about relating the kidnappers and robbers in the southern Philippines with Al Qaida. It's a connection that hasn't been made very successfully. But the U.S. was pleased to have an opportunity to help the Philippines and try to restore the security relationship."

Washington sent U.S. special forces to train Philippine soldiers combating the Abu Sayyaf and other U.S. troops to provide logistical support for the Philippine army. Asian security specialist Sheldon Simon says that was just the beginning, because the United States is now committed to helping the Philippines with other military training programs.

Washington also used to have a strong military relationship with Indonesia, providing equipment and training to the Indonesian armed forces. But Congress put a stop to that after the Indonesian army was implicated in the bloodbath in East Timor when the territory held a referendum on independence in 1999.

Priorities changed, however, after September 11. Suspected Islamic militants are believed to be hiding in Indonesia, and the United States is especially interested in getting the Indonesian government and army on board in the war on terrorism. So the Bush administration, without violating the Congressional ban on military aid, has allocated $50 million for education and training programs, which will mostly help the Indonesian police.

Paolo Pasicolan is a Southeast Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "What that does is take a step closer to normalizing military ties, but not going quite there," said Mr. Pasicolan. "And I think certainly this has come from the expediency of the war on terrorism - the need to deal with Indonesian military, because there's nobody else that will deal with the problem except for them. But the way the Bush administration is doing it is that they're trying to take it step by step, to try to create an incentive for the Indonesian military to become more professional and become a better and less corrupt military, but at the same time deal with the problem of terrorism."

The president of the U.S.-Indonesia Society Paul Cleveland says even before last September there was an interest among some U.S. policymakers in resuming military training for Indonesia. He says pressure for that increased after the terrorist attacks. But Ambassador Cleveland says the Indonesian judicial system has not made their arguments any easier.

The recent court cases in Indonesia that have exonerated Indonesian military officers from any blame in the case of East Timor - the post election period in East Timor in 1999 - may represent something of a setback to efforts to resume contact with the Indonesian military.

Analyst Sheldon Simon says the U.S. government is still reluctant to restore full military relations with the Indonesian army because it has not yet shed its reputation for questionable human rights practices. And Thomas Reckford says the Indonesian government will never seek the kind of help from the United States that Manila requested.