Amid simmering concerns about the United States' staying power in the region, former US defence secretary Bill Cohen turned the tables on delegates at last weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue and asked instead what role Asia would like to see the US play.
Cohen, who served under then president Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, suggested that it was not clear if the region had a consensus on whether it wants to see a greater security role by the US or finds it too much.
He put the question to Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at the concluding discussion of the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The US plays an indispensable role in the region, Dr Ng replied, adding that for half a century it has provided the strategic security umbrella without which Asia could not have prospered.
“For Singapore, it has been very clear. We believe in the US presence in the region. And we believe that no one else except the US can play the role,” he said.
A day earlier, participants at the defence forum saw US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel make several forceful assertions about US presence in the region, including that it would pump more military resources into Asia.
Still, questions about US commitment to the region hung in the air.
Among the sceptical was former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “It is good that Hagel is talking about American leadership. But polls show the American public is tired of the US playing a major role overseas. So how do you persuade the world that America is interested in leadership?” he said.
US security analyst Bonnie Glaser said that while Hagel has sent out a strong signal to the region by criticising China for “unilateral and destabilising” actions in the South China Sea, the deal needs to be closed.
“I think the US does need to do more to create consequences for China for its violations of international norms,” she said.
“But we have yet to see exactly what those consequences are going to be in terms of real actions. And I do think that’s what the region is looking for.”
On the other hand, other observers such as Professor Simon Tay of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs thought that the region does not view the US as an unmixed blessing, given China’s growing influence here.
“The US presence, though reassuring to some, will make others nervous,” he said.
Dr Ng noted that both the US and China had contributed to keeping a lid on Asia’s disputes through the influence they exerted on the regional economy.
In a speech that analysed the reasons for the region being conflict-prone, Dr Ng noted that Asia lacks the “never again” resolve that bound Europe after two world wars.
Nor does Asean have the equivalent of Europe’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance to avoid war, he added.
But the intertwined economic ties help, he said.
“The restraining force hitherto has been economic development for each [one’s] own interest, first supported in large measure by the US as it provided the strategic security umbrella for the region, and subsequently fuelled by China’s economic development in the last two decades,” he said.
Things could change unpredictably if, for instance, growth stalls, sovereignty disputes escalate or social and political structures are challenged due to a rising middle class.
Asia’s rising military expenditure is also a source of concern, he noted. Among the world’s top 10 military spenders are China, Japan, India and South Korea. Asean nations and Australia are also on track to increase or maintain their defence spending.
Adding volatility to the situation are the historical animosities, for example, between China, Japan and Korea, that can be easily whipped up, he said.
One way forward, he suggested, is to build the missing “strategic trust” by stepping up practical cooperation and interaction between militaries.
Trust can also be cultivated, he noted, when militaries work together in times of humanitarian crises such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.