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U.S. to Lobby Asia Allies for More Support

At security talks today in Singapore, Rumsfeld is to call for greater efforts against terrorism while downplaying a plan to better protect key strait.

June 04, 2004|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived here Thursday to seek greater cooperation from Asian nations in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. But he planned to soft-pedal a controversial and still embryonic proposal to better protect the Strait of Malacca, through which half of the world's oil supply is shipped.

Rumsfeld will spend today and Saturday at the 2004 Shangri-La Dialogue security conference here, amid continued fears among intelligence officials that the Al Qaeda terrorist network and its ally Jemaah Islamiah are plotting to destabilize the world's oil supply by targeting the strait, as well as Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Singapore was publicly drawn into the global anti-terrorism effort several months after the Sept. 11 attacks when more than a dozen alleged terrorists were arrested there for what authorities called a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy and its key commercial interests.

Intelligence collected in the case suggested that terrorists had plans to target ships in "kill zones" in the narrowest portions of the strait, Singaporean officials said. The waterway is a key route for ships traveling from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. A quarter of the world's commerce is shipped through the strait.

The U.S. has been developing a plan to protect the strait for fear that the waterway may be the target of an attack similar to one in October 2000 on the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen, which cost the lives of 17 sailors, and the bombing of the French tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast two years later.

Word of the American plan roiled a region proud of its independence after nearly a century and a half of British colonial rule, raising the specter of a new superpower extending its hegemony into the waters that separate Malaysia and the island of Singapore from the world's most-populous Muslim nation, Indonesia.

In March, Adm. Thomas Fargo, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, described on Capitol Hill what defense officials say was an initiative in early consideration to work with South East Asian nations to protect the strait. Although Singapore welcomed the initiative, which included mutual intelligence gathering and joint patrols of the waterway, Malaysia and Indonesia rejected the proposal as an intrusion.

"I think we can look after our own area," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told the Far Eastern Economic Review last month.

Rumsfeld does not intend to directly seek help in the fledgling initiative, said a Defense Department official who requested anonymity, but he will urge broader cooperation in the Bush administration's declared war on terrorism.

"What's important is that we've got a lot of good friends and a lot of good allies in this region, and that the United States is not going to be doing anything that we haven't discussed with them and coordinated and cooperated with," Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him.

Rumsfeld is likely to focus on improving cooperation among allies in challenging what he described as a sporadically coordinated global terrorist network that threatens all nations.

"Well, we've seen terrorist actions that are not dissimilar in Madrid, in Bali, in the United States," Rumsfeld said. "In one case a plane goes into a building and in another it's a train in Madrid or a hotel or what have you.... And that's a serious problem for every country that prefers to have a state as opposed to a handful of extremists deciding what will happen."

The secretary said he had no plans to ask for specific contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 138,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq continues to dwarf troop contributions from other coalition nations.

"In terms of going in and asking for something specific, I doubt it," Rumsfeld said. "I don't think we need to go in and say can you do this, that or the other thing."

The U.S. commitment in Iraq has caused some turmoil in East Asia over the Pentagon's plan to divert troops from South Korea, prompting concern among East Asian allies that the American commitment to the region has diminished. Asked about that fear, an issue that will probably come up during discussions in Singapore, Rumsfeld bristled and described the troop transfer as part of a 2 1/2-year-old global repositioning of U.S. forces, a transition from a Cold War military to a 21st century force.

Directing his answer pointedly to a reporter, he said: "One of the things that everyone, including you, needs to get over is the idea that numbers of troops or numbers of things are how one assesses capability, because it simply isn't the case anymore."

The secretary traveled to Asia on a National Airborne Command Operations Center jet, a modified 747 designed as a mobile command post for use during a nuclear war.

Rumsfeld is scheduled to meet Singapore's deputy prime minister and the defense ministers of Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea during his five-day tour. He also plans to visit the nearly 5,000 sailors and Marines with the Essex aircraft carrier group for a reenlistment ceremony and a town hall meeting.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to arrive in Bangladesh for a meeting with the prime minister and defense minister. That visit, which he disclosed to reporters traveling with him, already has drawn criticism.

In a statement Wednesday, Bangladesh Khelafat Andolon, an Islamic group, called Rumsfeld a "perpetrator of genocide in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war criminal, enemy of mankind and Allah" and urged Bangladeshis to rally against the visit, Associated Press reported.

The Communist Party of Bangladesh said Rumsfeld "is visiting Bangladesh to force us to involve our troops in American-led barbarism and aggression in Iraq."

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