WASHINGTON: Old combat pilots warn young ones about “target fixation,” when you get so focused on what you want to bomb that you lose track of everything else and fly into the ground. That’s the danger facing US strategy in Asia as the heavily hyped Pacific pivot gets boiled down to “contain China,” warned a panel of top diplomats from Australia, India, and the Philippines.

“Obviously from our perspective in the United States, China seems to be the overriding concern because of economic and military issues,” Rep. Randy Forbes told me before the session started at the annual forum of the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative. [Click here for more from Rep. Forbes on looming cuts in US defense spending]. “This [event] gives us a great opportunity to look at that pivot not just through our eyes but also through the eyes of some of our allies and friends and strategic partners.”

So Forbes’ first question to the assembled diplomats was what the US should be thinking about besides China.

“You are absolutely right not to simply focus on China,” declared Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley. “We are now witnessing globally the simultaneous rise of a dozen major powers – the rapid rise of a dozen major powers — in a set of circumstances where issues between them are not resolved.

“In the Southeast Asian area in particular, there are almost no settled boundaries, almost none,” Beazley went on. “There is no arbiter, there is no guarantor [of a peaceful resolution]. That’s where the U.S. comes in.”

But historically, while the US has been intensely engaged with its long-time allies in Northeast Asia — Japan, South Korea, and (de facto) Taiwan — and even with China itself, said Beazley, “you dropped the ball in Southeast Asia after Vietnam.” That’s more than four decades of neglect to make up for.

By contrast, India, for example, has literally centuries of involvement and investment in Southeast Asia. “We have six million people of Indian origin who live in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao, “three million such people in Burma/Myanmar alone” — 50 percent — “and two million in Malaysia.” What Rao did not say is that the actual size of the Hindu Indian minority in Muslim-dominated Malysia is in fact a bitterly controversial question in regional politics, one of the many sources of tension which Americans tend to overlook.

Even in terms of security narrowly defined, India worries much more about Pakistan-based “militants” like Lashkar-i-Taiba — which Amb. Rao was at pains to link with America’s prime enemies, the Taliban and al-Qaeda — than about China. Yes, Rao admitted, the two countries fought a border war in 1962, and China to this day issues passports and other official documents claiming the disputed territory as its own; on that matter, she acknowledged, “there is no common ground.” But over 50 years, she went on, “we have built a relationship in which we’ve been able to manage our differences in a very rational and grown-up way.”

“China is a neighbor of India’s,” said Rao. “We need a very peaceful and stable neighborhood.”

“We are not looking at isolating China,” the Indian Ambassador emphasized, in an implicit rebuke to American hawks who see New Delhi as a counterweight to Beijing, part of an effort to contain the Middle Kingdom. To the contrary, she said, “we see the need to develop more and more habits of cooperation with China. When it comes to a security architecture for the Asia-Pacific, we also believe it must be open and inclusive and rule-based.” In other words, India won’t be part of any US-led security arrangement that leaves China out.

That no-containment message was echoed even by the panel’s representative from the Philippines, whose US-provided flagship engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese vessels this summer over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. While the former U.S. colony has both increased defense spending and refocused its armed forces from internal security to international conflicts, it’s “not to contain any other power,” said Maria Austria, their deputy chief of mission. “We’d like to disabuse [everyone] of the idea that [we are] strengthening alliances to box out or contain any other power.”

The Philippines do want the U.S. to help ensure “the peaceful settlement of disputes… in the South China — in the West Philippine Sea,” Austria said, hastily switching to Manila’s preferred term for the disputed waters. But the Philippines have many other security concerns as well, she emphasized; nor are they limited to the Pacific. Most notably, Austria, said, “there are close to a 100 Filipino seafarers still in the hands of Somali pirates.”

So if America wants its Asia-Pacific partners’ continuing support, it needs to engage with them on their own terms and about all their interests, not with the narrow aim of recruiting them for a new Cold War against Beijing. That’s true even of longtime treaty allies like Australia, whose economy depends heavily on exports of iron, oil, and gas to China. It’s true of Singapore, which will allow the US Navy to operate regularly out of (but not be permanently based in) its harbors. It’s even more true of “non-aligned” India.

“We have had a history of some distancing [between the US and India]. In the last decade or so the relationship has improved,” said Amb. Rao. Today, “There are no limits to this relationship — but I see this as a gradually evolving process. In India, we have to do things our way.”

That caveat clearly holds true for other US partners as well.

Edited 11/29 1:35 pm