The United States, building on the massive humanitarian effort after the Indian Ocean tsunami in December, plans an aggressive effort to build economic, political and security links with Southeast Asian nations, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said yesterday.
Zoellick, who on Monday begins a nine-day trip to the region, said that China had been "very shrewd" in recent years in making clear its "size and weight and influence" in the region. But he said the U.S. response will not be to block China, but to make the case that the U.S. market is critically important to the economies of Southeast Asia, as well.
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"For me, the theme is not U.S. versus China in Southeast Asia," Zoellick told reporters at a briefing on his trip. "We need a response with an activist set of policies, not by complaining about other people's policies."
Separately, Zoellick disclosed that Sudanese officials had told him yesterday that they would welcome an expanded African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan's troubled Darfur region and would accept a NATO role in facilitating that expansion. Zoellick recently returned from a trip to Sudan, where he pressed the government to take steps to demonstrate it was willing to end the suffering in Darfur, where government-armed Arab militia have attacked mostly black African villagers, driving 2 million from their homes into sprawling and decrepit camps. He added that U.S. officials were also making progress in discussions with rebels who have been battling the government.
"This is a devil of a difficult problem," he said, saying he did not want to overstate the results. "But I am pleased we are making some progress on this."
The Bush administration, which has spent $95 million to help set up camps for African Union forces, is seeking another $50 million to $60 million to assist with the rapid expansion from about 2,200 troops currently to 7,700 by the end of September, officials said.
Zoellick, the number two U.S. diplomat, will visit Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. "Part of what I will be doing is trying to work, particularly in Indonesia, on the pivot from the immediate humanitarian support to how this fits into the reconstruction effort," he said.
Zoellick said Indonesia is the linchpin of the region, given its size and also its status as the world's largest Muslim country. He planned to visit Sumatra's Aceh region, which suffered the greatest loss of life in the tsunami, to assess the pace and needs of the reconstruction effort.
On the economic front, Zoellick noted that China, the United States and the region have what he called "triangular trade flows" in which many of the exports from China to the United States are assembled from commodities or parts that originated in Southeast Asia. So he planned to make the case that the U.S. market "is not only important to China's growth, but it is important to Southeast Asia's growth."
In Vietnam, Zoellick will mark the 10th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations after the Vietnam War, which ended 30 years ago. Zoellick said a high-level Vietnamese official may soon visit the United States to help strengthen ties. "They want to have a very good and strong relationship because they don't want to be totally dependent on China," he said.