Asean’s first step towards regional security

This week, for the first time ever, Asean and its dialogue partners will send their senior officials to Singapore to discuss regional security issues. DERWIN PEREIRA of the Foreign Desk reports on the significance of the meeting.

FOR 25 YEARS CONVENTIONAL wisdom in Asean has been that regional security is on everyone’s mind, but not their lips. The diversity of countries in the Asia-Pacific and their divergent security interests made it a subject to leave well alone.

It was only last year, at the fourth Asean Summit in Singapore, that the S-word was put explicitly on the agenda. Asean leaders declared that Asean could “promote external dialogues on enhancing security in the region as well as intra-Asean dialogues on Asean security co-operation”.

They said Asean’s annual get-together with its dialogue partners, known as the Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC), could be used as the setting for such security talks.

The senior officials’ meeting this Thursday and Friday will get the talking started. It is a milestone, not only for Asean, but for the Asia-Pacific region. It brings together 12 Pacific Rim countries and the EC for a multilateral dialogue on issues previously discussed only bilaterally, if at all.

Senior officials from Asean and their seven dialogue partners – the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the EC – will discuss the hot spots in the region as well as a longer-term vision on how to ensure regional security.

They will prepare the agenda for the next PMC in July, when their foreign ministers meet. It is the beginning of a new process.

“Approaches to Asean security have tended to be ad hoc in nature and responded to specific situations, as when Vietnam invaded Cambodia,” said Dr Lau Teik Soon, vice-chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs.

“There has never been a concerted effort on a continuing basis to discuss regional security matters.”

But the end of the Cold War has changed the strategic outlook of Asean countries, forcing them to reconsider their positions on security co-operation, he said.

The countries face many questions about the future: whether the US will withdraw its forces from Asia too quickly, upsetting the balance of power; the growing military might of China and Japan; the Cambodian problem; and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Old territorial disputes have also resurfaced alongside new issues such as piracy, drug trafficking and environmental
degradation.

“There is a need to sit down and brainstorm these issues. The senior officials will look out for the landmines before asking their ministers to tread on the ground,” said Dr Lau, an associate professor in the political science department of the National University of Singapore.

Asean in the driver’s seat

Asean’s dialogue partners will assume a back seat as Asean countries take the lead.

Said Dr Lau: “When we talk about Asia-Pacific regional security, the sensitivities of smaller countries must be a paramount consideration. Therefore, Asean countries setting the direction would be more conducive, rather than external powers deciding the agenda.”

Previous Canadian and Australian proposals for a regional security arrangement had failed because they were seen as external players setting the agenda for Asean, he added.

Western diplomats are sensitive to this.

“The US wants Asean countries to take the lead,” said an American official here. “We are here on a listening mode.”

The US would not do anything that might be construed as seeking to dominate the agenda, he said.

The Japanese are also moving cautiously, although they made the first proposal for the meeting at the 1991 PMC.

Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo stress that talking about regional security is a “delicate matter” – partly because memories of Japanese war-time occupation make Asians sensitive to any assertiveness from Tokyo.

“We don’t want to be viewed as imposing anything on Asean,” said a senior policy-maker who asked not to be named. “We have to be very careful. We have to strike a good balance between taking initiatives and following consensus.”

Talking security

The senior officials will have a very broad agenda and “very different points of view will be vigorously discussed,” said one of them. These include:

* Cambodia. With the General Election on May 23, this is likely to top the agenda. Many of the governments taking part in the meeting are either members of the Security Council or are participants in the Paris Conference on Cambodia that was responsible for the peace settlement of October 1991.

At issue is how to deal with the Khmer Rouge, which is boycotting the elections; what to do if violence escalates; and whether the United Nations should take on a peace-enforcing role.

* North Korea. Pyongyang has threatened to pull out from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by June 12. Its refusal to open two secret military sites to UN inspection fuels fears that it is on the brink of building nuclear weapons.

* Spratly Islands. Six countries claim all or part of the islands in the South China Sea. Three of the claimants Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines are members of Asean. The others are China, Taiwan and Vietnam. China and Vietnam have had armed clashes over the islands. China has reaffirmed its readiness to use force to back its claim.

* China. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China no longer has to worry too much about a major adversary. Yet Beijing is still buying arms that will enable it to project its power southwards, where it has its claims in the Spratlys.

* Myanmar. An American diplomat here said the US wanted to discuss the Myanmar governments record on human rights. In the past, the EC had urged Asean to put pressure on the Yangon authorities over this matter.

With such a variety of issues on the agenda, will anything come out of the meeting?

Officials are anxious to lower expectations on the outcome. They warn that the meeting will produce no “grand designs” or sweeping proposals about regional security.

What was important, they argued, was that the discussions took place at all.

“Right now, the significance does not rest on the contents. Let’s just start talking,” said one diplomat.

Talking about the differences was the first step to breaking down distrust, said the officials.

An immediate aim was to promote the transparency of defence policies – “so that PMC member-countries can feel more comfortable about each other’s intentions,” said a Japanese official in Tokyo.

However, the officials acknowledge that it may take years before all the countries are ready for concrete confidence-building measures, such as explaining arms acquisitions, notifying neighbours of military manoeuvres and swapping observers.

Towards a security structure

What sort of regional security framework will eventually emerge out of this?

Since World War II, security in the Asia-Pacific has been based primarily on a series of bilateral relationships with the US.

Washington has described itself as the hub, its separate treaties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand radiating out like the spokes of a wheel.

Asean officials are anxious to assure Washington that they are not trying to replace these bilateral ties.

Rather, they want to supplement them with “new architecture.”

The Clinton administration, unlike its predecessors, has embraced this approach.

In a testimony before a Senate sub-committee in March, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord said:

“I think, under this administration, you will see a willingness to explore, first, consultations and dialogue, which may lead, eventually, over time, to new institutions.”

The aim, he said, was “developing multilateral forums for security consultations while maintaining the solid foundations of our alliances.”

Said Asian expert Prof Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics and Political Science: “What the Asean officials are trying to do is to get the best of both worlds and to see to what extent they can expand security dialogue without losing the benefits of the residual bilateral security structure.”

What analysts and officials agree on is that no one should expect quick results from this week’s talks.

“When you deal with security issues, you are affecting the core national interests of various countries,” said Dr Lau. “To resolve them, we have to do it cautiously and in a very sensitive way. It takes time.”

Said a US official here: “It is going to be a gradual process. No one wants form to get too far ahead of substance. No one wants to set up an organisation without having a clear idea as to what the organisation would do.”

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