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Replace Asean

International Commentary

August 3, 2001

By Ellen Bork. Ms. Bork writes on Asian affairs from New York.

Last week's meeting of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asean Regional Forum foreign ministers lived up to expectations. It flopped. There was consensus on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's boffo performance in the group's annual variety show, but very little of substance took place. Instead, the meeting was overshadowed by the participants' major preoccupation -- relations between the U.S. and China -- and continued concern that the organization's lack of cohesion and failure to solve chronic regional problems threaten to make it irrelevant.

Hopes that Asean, and its corollary ARF, can promote harmony and stability in Asia are misplaced. The regional group's membership, history and principles are irreconcilable with the most important element in achieving them -- democratic principles. What Asia needs is an alliance of democratic nations committed to the freedom and security of its members.

Asean has outlived its purpose. Founded in 1967 in response to a perceived threat of communist insurgency throughout Asia, none of its members were democracies (today, a minority are). Its guiding principle of "noninterference" reflected the organization's emphasis on external threats. The continued insistence on noninterference and decision-making by consensus render the group incapable of dealing with festering problems like Burma, or new ones like Indonesia, where solutions require a commitment to democracy and its attributes -- a pluralistic civil society, free press, rule of law and civilian control of the military.

The ARF, founded in 1994 to discuss security issues, includes the Asean 10 and the U.S., China, Russia, European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia, India, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and North Korea. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told the Bangkok Post, expectations for ARF's progress are bound to be limited "if only because there are so many partners with very many different interests and histories."

Efforts to overhaul Asean have failed. In 1997, then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim provoked controversy by advocating "constructive involvement" in the affairs of other Asean member states, including assistance for electoral systems, civil society, rule of law and other reforms. Though it carefully avoiding explicit support for democratic transitions, the proposal made no headway because it threatened so many sitting heads of Asean states, including Mr. Anwar's boss, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who later jailed Mr. Anwar.

One year later, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the longest serving Asean head of state and most ardent devotee of noninterference, Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand and Domingo Siazon of the Philippines revived efforts to change Asean's modus operandi. For reasons of principle or pragmatism, they assured their colleagues that that their proposal for "constructive intervention" was not aimed at bringing about democratic change in member states.

Thailand, said Mr. Surin, is "a well-wisher of democracy-loving people everywhere, but we are active champions of only our own." Instead, he tied the initiative, renamed "flexible engagement" to be less threatening, to the need for countries to be able to address issues that may have consequences beyond a country's sovereign borders, such as drug-trafficking or refugees. "We do not seek to interfere in the internal affairs of any country," he said, "but we will voice our opinion on any issues that impact our country's stability and our people's well-being."

Unfortunately, these were the high-water mark of efforts to reform Asean. The late 1990s saw Laos, Burma and Cambodia admitted as members and North Korea invited to join the ARF. This prompted one Thai diplomat to exclaim that Asean's expansion had "swung the balance in favor of the closed societies." Some Asean members had gone through "temporary authoritarian phases," the diplomat said. But now there was "a sense of permanence." While damaging Asean irreparably, this trend has worked to the benefit of the authoritarian leaders involved, and of course China, which has assiduously cultivated influence in Asean, especially among Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

The outlook for Asean and the ARF is not promising. There is, however, an alternative. Rather than trying to the transform the Asean/ARF system, Asia's democracies should establish a regional political and military alliance committed to strengthening the democracy and security of its members and expanding it in the region. Such an organization would be a logical outgrowth of Asia's democratic development over the last half-century, and an answer to the anachronistic regional institutions that now fail to guarantee the region's security and freedom.

It would also serve as a powerful incentive to others to fulfill democratic criteria for membership, much as NATO has attracted aspiring new members in Europe. And like NATO, the U.S. would be an indispensable member of an Asian democratic alliance. President George W. Bush spoke during his campaign of working "toward a day when the fellowship of free Pacific nations is as strong and united as our Atlantic partnership." To that end, he has appointed defense and foreign policy officials who support strengthened relationships with democratic allies much neglected under the Clinton administration.

Obviously, an alliance of Asian democracies, especially one including the U.S., would provoke intense outrage from China. Over a long period of time, Asian countries have become conditioned to dealing with each other, and with the region's two powers, China and the U.S., on a bilateral basis. China has benefited from this situation and can be expected to strenuously resist any change.

Taiwan's participation in the alliance, which should be self-evident given its democratic status, would also cause controversy and require a long overdue re-evaluation of the way U.S. policy on Taiwan has evolved. In fact, the U.S. is already taking important steps to institutionalize a de facto defense relationship with Taiwan, and the president has expressed the solidity of America's commitment. Top Bush administration officials signed a 1999 position paper, sponsored by the Project for the New American Century, calling past U.S. pressure on Taiwan to acquiesce to reunification on Beijing's terms "dangerous and directly at odds with American strategic interests, past U.S. policy and American democratic ideals."

The circumstances that inspired Asean's founding have long since changed. However, while the old Cold War threat is gone, there is still a contest within Asia that involves ideals and the potential use of force. Asia has no regional institution capable of advancing and protecting the interests of its democracies. It should have one.