US vows commitment to Europe despite Asia focus
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saturday that Europe remains Washington's "partner of first resort" despite US budget cuts, troop withdrawals and a strategic pivot to Asia.
In a twin US effort to reassure Europe about the historical US commitment to the continent, Clinton was joined by US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, who nonetheless urged the Europeans to invest more in their defences.
Hot foreign policy issues such as Iran, Afghanistan and Syria also loomed large over the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, a gathering of world leaders, ministers and top brass.
In a speech at a roundtable talk with Panetta, Clinton pledged cooperative efforts for a united and secure Europe, mutual economic recovery, an "agile" security alliance, and a democratic Middle East along the Mediterranean.
The chief US diplomat also urged her European partners in the southern German city of Munich to work together in meeting "the opportunities that lie ahead" in the Asia-Pacific region.
"I've heard all the talk about where Europe fits into America's global outlook. I've heard some of the doubts expressed. But the reality couldn't be clearer: Europe is America's partner of first resort," she stressed.
Forced to make tough choices in tight budgetary times, the United States is shifting its military priorities to Asia and the Middle East -- even if it has pulled its troops out of Iraq and begins a drawdown in Afghanistan.
Reducing its military presence in Europe while tailoring it to future threats, Washington sees the looming strategic challenge in the Asia-Pacific as a newly powerful and assertive China rattles US allies in the region.
In opening the conference Friday, German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Europe should not fear a renewed US focus on Asia and must increasingly look after its own backyard militarily without its historic ally.
In his speech on Saturday, Panetta said: "Europe remains our security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world -- as we saw in Libya last year, and as we see in Afghanistan every day.
"We are therefore deeply committed to strengthening transatlantic security partnerships and institutions, including NATO," he said.
While the US military plans to withdraw two of its four army brigades stationed in Europe in 2014, Panetta announced that a US-based brigade will contribute to the NATO Response Force, a 13,000-strong unit created in 2002.
The US military will also rotate a battalion-sized task force to Germany to take part in exercises and training.
But Panetta also renewed pressure on European allies to keep investing in defence and to pool resources as part of the "Smart Defence" initiative aimed at maintaining military capabilities.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said: "I am convinced the time is ripe for the EU to seriously take its responsibilities for the security in Europe and its neighborhood."
The gathering will feature a discussion later Saturday on "America, Europe and the rise of Asia" involving Zhang Zhijun, Chinese vice foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, Australian foreign minister, and US Senator John McCain.
And the financial crisis will not be far from the debate, with organiser Wolfgang Ischinger saying at the start of the conference that there would be talk of "banks not tanks."
The premier of crisis-hit Italy, Mario Monti, will take part in a panel involving the head of Deutsche Bank Josef Ackermann and Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank.
Clinton and Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle also issued appeals for united UN Security Council action to stop the bloodshed in Syria where an estimated 6,000 people have died in a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Clinton was due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich conference in a bid to clinch Russian support for a tough UN resolution supporting a transition to democracy in Syria.
But Lavrov told Russian television that the latest draft resolution "does not suit us at all and I hope that it is not put to a vote."
© 2012 AFP