Towards a new security order

Asean Post-Ministerial Conference ———————————
Asean foreign ministers are meeting their seven dialogue partners here next week to discuss security issues and how to enhance economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. This is a landmark conference which could widen the post-Cold War security dialogue to include China and Russia. DERWIN PEREIRA and CHAI KIM WAH of the Foreign Desk examine the issues before the conference.

CONSIDER THESE TWO SCENARIOS, one from the Cold War past and the other for the post-Cold War future: South-east Asia in 1985. US-Soviet rivalry polarised the region. Asean opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Subic Bay in the Philippines was host to the largest US military bases overseas, as American firepower underpinned regional security through bilateral treaties. On the opposite side. Soviet warships were based in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, while combat-ready Soviet troops stood in red alert along China’s border.

South-east Asia in 2005. Chinese military power rules the South China Sea. Asean, expanded to include Vietnam and Laos, houses US military facilties. Asia-Pacific defence planners meet regularly to discuss security, while friendly states hold joint military exercises. A multi-lateral security structure is in the making.

THE latter scenario envisages a set of security arrangements which involves new key players and mechanisms to prevent conflicts arising from competing interests in the region.

The creation of a new security structure will be a gradual process. Asean countries, by virtue of their growing economic power, are likely to play the midwife’s role in bringing it to life.

Indeed, some analysts believe that the embryo of a multilateral security framework is already evolving in the Asia-Pacific.

When the Asean foreign ministers and their seven dialogue partners – the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and the European Community – meet here next week for their annual post-ministerial conference (PMC), the focus will be on ways to maintain peace and security in the region.

This year’s ministerial dialogue promises to be a milestone event. It may widen security dialogue in the region to include China, Russia and Vietnam. It could also lead to fresh initiatives to bolster regional confidence.

Much of the groundwork was laid by the Asean-PMC senior officials meeting held here last May, when for the first time, the participating countries focused exclusively on regional political and security questions.

There was agreement on the need to cooperate with Asean’s major trading partners as far as regional security was concerned. The Post-Ministerial Conference was the vehicle to get things going in this direction.

What was significant was the consensus that China and Russia had to be included if any discussion on regional security was to be meaningful.

Said a senior Indonesian diplomat: “Whether you like it or not, China and Russia have to be included in a dialogue. We cannot discuss regional problems without them.”

The question was how to involve the two regional giants. As both are not dialogue partners, they cannot attend the Asean conference.

The solution was found in what has been dubbed as “dinner diplomacy”.

The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers have been invited to a dinner with the Asean-PMC ministers this Sunday the day after the Asean foreign ministers end their meeting and the day before the PMC begins.

It will bring together, for the first time with Asean as host, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, China’s Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and Russia’s Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Vietnam, Laos and Papua New Guinea, which have observer status at the Asean Ministerial Meeting, have also been invited.

It is envisaged that through this informal setting, ways can be found to involve China and Russia in future dialogues to discuss security issues.

If all goes well, they may be invited to the next Asean-PMC senior officials’ meeting. The next step could be a regional security forum encompassing the six Asean states, the seven dialogue partners, China, Russia, Vietnam, Laos and Papua New Guinea, at next year’s Post-Ministerial Conference in Bangkok.

“This is a halfway house between keeping them out and involving them in the process,” said an Asean official. “At a later stage, we will have to decide how to bring them into the PMC as dialogue partners.”

But the wheels of diplomacy turn slowly on the basis of consensus. There are reservations that it may be unwise to engage China and Russia too closely at this stage.

According to sources, the Japanese are unhappy about bringing in the Russians, with whom they have a simmering dispute over the Northern Territories in the Kurile islands chain.

At the same time, some fear that despite market reforms, China, Russia and Vietnam would not fit well with the 13 capitalist economies of Asean and its major trading partners.

“They are not like-minded countries,” said one official.

“If we bring them into discussions from the onset, we are not sure there can be the frank and open exchange of views we have had at the senior officials meeting.”

But an American diplomat said: “Even if it inhibits discussions a little bit, that disadvantage is far outweighed by having them there.”

The question of an emerging China and its growing military power is of particular concern.

While there is optimism about China’s spectacular economic growth, there are also questions whether it will become a potential threat in the future.

Over the past year, China has beefed up its military forces in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands.

In February 1992, the National People’s Congress passed a new law which defines that whole area in the South China Sea as its territorial waters. In July 1992, Chinese marines seized some atolls from Vietnam.

Last week, an official Chinese publication revealed that Beijing is building a military air base on the Paracels.

South-east Asia expert Professor Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted:

“China has displayed in the South China Sea a creeping assertiveness at the expense of an enfeebled Vietnam. This is underpinned by a programme of re-armament for its air and naval forces.”

Some or all of the islands in the Spratlys, which straddle vital sea-lanes and believed to be resource-rich, are claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan. It is feared that the Spratlys could become the next potential flashpoint in view of the rival claims.

The Manila Declaration, issued at last year’s Asean ministerial meeting, calls on the claimants to exercise self-restraint and explore joint co-operation while setting aside the issue of sovereignty.

Vietnam has given its unconditional support to the declaration, but China’s response has been lukewarm.

Some Asean members are expected to probe Mr Qian about China’s intentions and its military build-up in the Spratlys.

With ministers from five of the six claimant-countries here, there may be discussions on whether to initiate multilateral negotiations on the claims.

Asean ministers may also ask Mr Christopher about American policy with regard to the Spratlys. The US has been ambivalent on this, as it is hesitant about getting involved in the territorial dispute.

A firm declaration of America’s stand by Mr Christopher would clarify the US position on an issue which affects regional stability.

As for Russia’s presence in the conference, the regional correspondent of Itar-Tass news agency, Mr Alexandre Bokhonko, said: “Russia must be involved because of its enormous nuclear stockpile and precarious political situation. If instability continues, it could pose a serious threat to the Asia-Pacific.”

Dr Jusuf Wanandi of Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that in this period of relative peace for the world’s fastest growing economies, Asean’s strategy must be to “rope these countries into a set of ground rules”.

“If this opportunity is missed and these countries go their separate ways, it would be much more difficult five or 10 years down the road to construct a security arrangement,” he warned.

With a Democratic President in Washington, there is less resistance to multilateral security arrangements in the region.

President Bill Clinton declared last week that a continued US military presence in the region and new security dialogues were guiding principles of his vision for the Asia Pacific.

Since the withdrawal of American forces from Subic Bay and Clarke air base in the Philippines, the US has obtained access to facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to help it maintain its presence in the region.

Said Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak: “We would want the US to be engaged in the region on the basis of having access in the region rather than having a physical presence.

“In any case, we don’t see there is a need for the US to be physically present because of her formidable capabilities to operate well-beyond her bases.”

An American official here said that this chimed with the current US defence strategy, which is to seek “places not bases”.

Mr Christopher, he added, would reaffirm bilateral ties with Asean countries and also support multilateral security discussions in the region during the meeting.

Just as the rise of China poses new challenges to the regional balance of power, the rapid growth in the rest of Asia can also be destabilising.

The arms build-up in South-east Asia, in the absence of any form of arms control, may breed suspicion.

The senior officials agreed in May to look into confidence-building measures to enhance “transparency”.

Among the ideas is a registry for countries to declare their arms inventories and arms acquisitions, exchange of information among defence planners, swopping military observers and prior notification of military exercises.

Ways to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and regional conflicts are also being discussed.

The senior officials, who are meeting from tomorrow (July 19-21), will present their recommendations to the post-ministerial conference.

The other security issues on the PMC’s agenda are:

* CAMBODIA. A senior Thai official said that the discussions would focus on ways to extend the United Nations’ presence in the country and funding for Cambodia’s reconstruction.

Said a senior Japanese diplomat: “Some kind of UN presence is still necessary in Cambodia. But it could be a different sort of presence from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.”

Untac’s mandate in Cambodia expires next month and head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk has asked for a permanent UN mission to remain in the country.

Asean ministers will discuss ways to keep the international community involved in “peace-building” in Cambodia, now that the peace-keeping phase is over.

The task of rebuilding Cambodia was too big for Asean to handle alone, the officials added.

Japan is also proposing another International Conference on the Reconstruction of Cambodia in a few months.

* NORTH KOREA: Its nuclear programme continues to be a source of worry, especially in the light of Pyongyang’s refusal to let the UN inspect two suspected nuclear sites.

* MYANMAR. Asean’s western dialogue partners want Myanmar to be put on the agenda because of its human rights violations. The debate is over what approach to take with regard to the military regime, which has refused to transfer power to civilian rule.

China is Myanmar’s main arms supplier. There is no UN embargo on arms sales to Myanmar, and the US as well as its European allies are expected to press for it at the conference.

* HUMAN RIGHTS. There would be a review of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna recently. Asean countries want to reiterate that the US and the West must not link aid and trade to human rights, nor try to impose their values on others.

* BOSNIA. Malaysia, which is sending troops to Bosnia, is keen to see the Western countries take strong action to end the atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims. It wants a UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

All told, the ministers have a very crowded agenda, with security issues taking the main spotlight. While the dialogue holds out hopes for a breakthrough on thorny security matters, there are also limits to what the conference can actually achieve.

East Asian expert Professor Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley said:

“The problem with an all Asia-Pacific security dialogue is that some of the problems are basically sub-regional. It becomes very complicated if we mix them or try to get an all Asian approach.”

But the post-ministerial conference, while not a decision-making body, could still bring about problem-solving mechanisms in North-east Asia and the South China Sea, he said.

“There is no single road to Asian security. We have to apply a multiplicity of approaches.”

This, above all, is what the dialogue seeks to discover next week. What the foreign ministers will talk about


Brunei, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah.
Indonesia, Mr Ali Alatas.
Malaysia, Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Philippines, Mr Roberto Romulo.
Singapore, Mr Wong Kan Seng.
Thailand, Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri.

Priority issues:
1. Widen the security dialogue to include China and Russia.
2. Cambodia’s post-war reconstruction.
3. Peaceful settlement of territorial disputes.
4. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
5. Support for Asean Free Trade Area (Afta).
6. Speed up progress of Uruguay Round.


AUSTRALIA Mr Gareth Evans
Priority issues:
1. Maintaining peace and security in Asia-Pacific region.
2. Closer ties with Asian countries.
3. Reconstruction in Cambodia, democracy in Myanmar and promotion of human rights.
4. Summit meeting of Apec leaders.

CANADA Mr Perrin Beatty
Priority issues:
1. Peacekeeping and prevention of conflicts.
2. Closer ties with Asean and Asian nations.
3. Promote Apec forum.

Priority issues:
1. Human rights violations in Myanmar.
2. Asean’s ties with the Single European Market.
3. Speed up the Gatt talks.

JAPAN Mr Kabun Muto
Priority issues:
1. Regional security
2. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in North-east Asia.
3. Reconstruction in post-war Cambodia.
4. Speed up progress on Uruguay Round.

Priority issues:
1. Post-war reconstruction in Cambodia.
2. Closer ties with Asean.

Priority issues:
1. Security in North-east Asia.
2. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
3. Establish confidence-building measures.

UNITED STATES Mr Warren Christopher
Priority issues:
1. Widening the regional security dialogue.
2. Peace and reconstruction in Cambodia.
3. Transfer of power to civilian rule and human rights violations in Myanmar.
4. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in North-east Asia.
5. Summit meeting of Apec leaders
6. Step up progress on Uruguay Round.

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