Asia After the Afghan War

TOKYO – July will mark two milestones in America’s sometimes-tortured relations with Asia. One is the beginning of the end of the nearly decade-long struggle in Afghanistan – the longest war in United States history – with President Barack Obama announcing the withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the country by next summer. The other is the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing, a turning point in the Cold War and the first step on China’s road to modernization – but at the time a huge shock to Asia, particularly Japan.

The looming Afghan withdrawal recalls, at least for some Asians, a third, even more traumatic event: America’s chaotic exit from Saigon in April 1975. Back then, that debacle seemed to presage a broader US withdrawal from Asia, with a war-weary American public seeking the supposed comforts of isolationism. Today’s Asian nervousness exists not only because isolationism appears to be gaining ground once more in America, but also because Afghanistan’s stability remains in doubt, while China’s power is rising in the absence of any pan-Asian consensus or institutional structure.

America did, indeed, turn inward following the fall of Saigon, and its neglect of Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to chaos and Al Qaeda’s near-takeover of the country. So it is not surprising that many Asian leaders are asking themselves what commitments the US will maintain once its troops leave Afghanistan. Perhaps equally important, many people in Asia are also debating whether the region would be able to rebalance itself should the US scale back its military presence.

Fortunately, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has reassured America’s Asian friends and allies that regional disengagement is not being contemplated. At the recent Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore – indeed, in the presence of Chinese Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie – Gates outlined his ideas for continuing US cooperation in and with Asia. Gates promised to increase the number of US warships deployed to Singapore as part of the US-Singapore Strategic Framework Agreement; increase the number of US Navy calls in Asian ports; hold more joint naval exercises; and improve multilateral military cooperation.