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US Military Faces Balancing Act in Asia

As the United States steps up efforts to increase its military allies in Asia, it is revealing more details about plans to shift forces to the region. Analysts say the rebalancing effort, as the Pentagon calls it, will also be a balancing act. Although some welcome the decision to shift more attention to Asia, it is raising concerns from others, including China - one of the region's growing military powers.

Some analysts see the U.S. move toward Asia as part of a long-term effort by Washington to strengthen and grow existing and new ties in the region. But others say it is part of a broader effort to counter China's growing military power.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, says that although U.S. military and other officials have given assurances that is not the case, he does not agree.

“[From] my point of view, the U.S. shift to the Asia Pacific - one of its purposes is to contain China,” he said.

Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans to shift 60 percent of U.S. naval forces to the Pacific region by 2020. He also traveled to Vietnam, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit Cam Ranh Bay, a key logistics hub during the Vietnam War. Panetta talked about the tremendous potential for ties between the two countries.

Vietnam and the Philippines have seen a rise in tensions with China in recent years over disputes in the South China Sea. Both countries are looking to Washington for support as they deal with Beijing.

In Thailand - a country that has strong relations with Beijing and Washington - U.S. and Thai officials are in the midst of discussions about using Utapao air base as a permanent hub for humanitarian and disaster assistance.

Abraham Denmark, a regional security analyst at the National Bureau of Asian Research, says the moves are the latest in a series of efforts to maintain America's presence in the region.

“Rebalancing is really about the recognition that the majority of the history that will be written about the 21st century will be conducted in the Asia-Pacific region. And because we’re a Pacific power, we want to make sure that we have the ability to maintain our access and influence in the region,” stated Denmark.

Catharin Dalpino, an expert on Southeast Asia at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says that in Thailand, the effort is more about strengthening the alliance than increasing access. The broader U.S. shift toward Asia, she says, has shed light on something that has been going on for years in Thailand and across the region.

“It’s not just about increasing access," Dalpino stated. "It’s about finding that intersection of interests and needs that would enable the alliance to go forward into this century.”

But finding that intersection of interests is not always easy. Last week, the U.S. space agency NASA had to cancel plans to operate climate change surveillance flights in Thailand from Utapao. The project prompted a political debate in the country, in part, because the air base was used by the United States during the Vietnam War.

When Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited Washington last month to talk about increased U.S. support, a protest erupted outside the U.S. embassy in Manila. Demonstrators voiced concerns about plans to increase joint military exercises and the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines.

But analyst Abraham Denmark says the way the United States sees its role in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia, is different than in the past, when it had military bases in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

It’s not going to be something that we saw during the Cold War, during the Vietnam War, but something new," explained Denmark. "Smaller, more agile, politically sustainable for our partners and allies.”

China calls the U.S. shift to Asia and Washington’s effort to strengthen military alliances “untimely.” And Beijing has called on the United States to respect its interests in the region.

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