May 26, 2012 / 5:11 PM / in 5 years

Biden tells West Point cadets: prepare for new threats

* Says ending Iraq, Afghanistan wars allows U.S. to refocus

* U.S.-China relationship critical with trade booming

* Salutes brave choices of “9/11 generation” soldiers

By Laura MacInnis

WASHINGTON, May 26 (Reuters) - Most of the cadets who graduated on Saturday from West Point were in elementary school when hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and enrolled in the U.S. military academy with wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Vice President Joe Biden lauded the brave choices of the Class of 2012 - and their so-called “9/11 generation” - with a commencement address focused on the United States’ new foreign policy challenges including cyber threats and a rising China.

He noted that nearly 3 million young Americans joined the military after the al Qaeda attacks, knowing they were likely to be sent into battle in remote parts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Hundreds of thousands of you have laced up those combat boots and walked across those barren deserts and snow-capped mountains,” he said in remarks that were also beamed live to the U.S. Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as well as the White House press room.

But Biden, whose eldest son Beau served in Iraq as a captain in the Delaware National Guard and was in the audience at West Point, said Saturday’s graduates would have to focus on a new set of threats, with the Iraq war over and Afghanistan’s ending.

“Winding down these long wars is enabling us to replace and rebalance our foreign policy, to take on the full range of challenges that will shape the 21st century, challenges different than those of the 20th century,” he said.

ASIA PIVOT

President Barack Obama, who is running for re-election with Biden in November, unveiled a new military strategy earlier this year that would “pivot” U.S. attention to Asia as troops return home from the wars his predecessor George W. Bush launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Biden was careful not to suggest there could be conflict looming in Asia, but said the growth of international commerce with the region made it necessary for the United States to give it more attention.

“The most critical relationship to get right is that between the United States and China. Every day the affairs of our nations and the livelihoods of our citizens become more connected,” he said.

The Obama administration also wants stronger ties with other emerging powers like India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and South Africa, said Biden, who has played an important role advising the president on foreign policy as well as making his re-election case on the 2012 campaign trail.

He did not say what he expects to transpire in Iran and North Korea, where tensions about nuclear programs are running high, nor in Syria where street violence continues despite the government having nominally agreed to a U.N.-backed peace plan.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee to oppose Obama in the Nov. 6 election, has accused the current administration of rushing for the exits in Iraq and Afghanistan and showing weakness in its dealings with China, Russia and Iran.

Biden said the graduates at West Point - whose 2012 class motto was “For More Than Ourselves” - would have to be ready to adapt their counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and other training to new horizons, “from cyber space to outer space.”

“This is your destiny, to lead your country. You are the leaders of your generation, the 9/11 generation, which I predict will go down in history as the finest generation this nation has ever produced,” he said. (Vicki Allen)

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