When Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke in the Vietnamese capital the other day, the first question, ironically enough, was whether the communist government of Vietnam can be confident that the United States government won't just run away with the going gets tough:
Q: Mr. Secretary of Defense, I have -- actually, we are from the Vietnam National University and military universities and colleges in Hanoi. And we'd like to take this opportunity to ask you a few questions.
The first question: ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] highly value cooperation with the United States for security, stability and peace in Southeast Asia. But how can we be sure that the United States won't just walk away when their national interests are served in a certain way? The second question --
SEC. GATES: Let me -- as I get older, I can only remember one question at a time. (Laughter.)
First of all, the United States has been active in Asia for more than 150 years. We have never turned our backs on Asia in that long time and with all that history. We are a Pacific nation. We have a presence in Asia. We border the Pacific Ocean. We have long-term interests here and we have friendships that go back many, many decades.
I think all Asia can be confident that the United States intends to remain engaged in Asia…
Not so funny to the Vietnamese, of course. The more assertive China becomes, the more they will be looking to the United States (and to India) to provide some balance in Southeast Asia.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.