THE United States military is building schools in Laos, roads on South Pacific islands, and is volunteering to help guarantee the safety of peacekeepers in Cambodia.
These activities are symbolic of a new thrust in US defense policy in the Pacific. They are part of the implementation of the East Asian Strategy Initiative (EASI) formulated 18 months ago in anticipation of deep cuts in military spending.
"We will have to get a lot more value out of some of the smaller things we do," says Adm. Charles Larson, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command.
This is not to say the US military will not continue to flex its muscles. But the flexing, Admiral Larson says, will be more difficult in part because of the upcoming loss of the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines. EASI did not anticipate the loss of the base.
The Navy plans to move a portion of the Subic Bay forces to its bases in Guam, Japan, and Hawaii. Ship repair work will be done in Singapore or in Lumut, Malaysia. The US is also negotiating with Indonesia for some ship-repair facilities.
The new strategy, Larson says, "accentuates the value of mobile, flexible forces that move about and are not dependent on bases." He says the new strategy favors the Navy.
This mobility was on display in Sydney last week when the aircraft carrier USS Independence and her battle group visited as part of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Coral Sea. The carrier group is based in Yokosuka, Japan. The carrier is now sailing into the Indian Ocean, where it can reach either Asia or the Middle East quickly. The carrier could easily be diverted to the South China Sea to provide air cover for United Nations peacekeepers in Cambodia.
"If some of those [UN] forces get in trouble, I could help ensure their security," says Larson. "I feel it could be perhaps a more appropriate role than large numbers of US forces on the ground there."
Australian officials, however, point out any use of US air power would have to be requested by the UN. Diplomatic sources say the use of US air power has not been considered in detail before.
The US military interest in regional problems is in large part a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of a communist threat, the defense emphasis is on regional areas of insecurity.
"They are talking about local skirmishes," says Michael Leigh, a political scientist at the University of Sydney.
US Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, recently in Canberra to discuss Pacific operations with Australian officials, pointed to the contested claims over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a flashpoint. Since geologists determined the likely presence of oil fields near the islands, several countries have joined the dispute over ownership of the islands.
Other potential areas of conflict, Mr. Cheney says in an interview, include the Korean Peninsula and the remaining communist nations of East Asia - China, Vietnam, and Laos.
Recent training exercises in the region, including the US-Australian exercise Kangaroo '92 in the Northern Territory two months ago, indicate more preparation for local conflict.
"[Kangaroo '92] was focused on responding to low-level Australian problems," says Des Ball, a defense expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. Indonesian observers were invited to the exercise to avoid damaging relations with Jakarta. Larson says it is likely there will be more joint training exercises.
More summit meetings to discuss defense issues are also likely. Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating says he would like to see regional leaders meet to discuss security issues on a regular basis. "Not any particular threat, but generalized concerns," says Mr. Ball.
Mr. Keating raised the issue last month during a meeting with Indonesia's President Suharto. Mr. Suharto was not opposed to the idea but did not think the timing was right. US Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams says the US is not enthusiastic about regional cooperation on defense issues but prefers bilateral agreements.
Despite this disagreement, the US and Australia remain the most powerful military forces in the Pacific, and defense officials say cooperation between the two countries is excellent.
Cheney says he sees no defense policy differences between Keating and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke.