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Southeast Asians Have a Big Stake in Northeastern Stability

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - As the ASEAN 10 sit down with their Regional Forum dialogue partners this week in Bangkok, they could do worse than start by considering the significance of Okinawa, site of the just completed Group of Eight summit conference.

That Japanese island is not only the location of a key U.S. base. Okinawa sits at the Pacific gateway to the East China Sea, as close to Taiwan, mainland China, South Korea and the Philippines as it is to Honshu, Japan's main island.

ASEAN's attentions are understandably turned inward. How to help maintain the integrity of Indonesia? What, if anything, to do about separatism elsewhere? What business, if any, do the 10 members have considering each other's internal affairs? What, if anything, are they willing to do to prevent drugs and arms smuggling that damage their neighbors?

The group needs to reinforce commitments to free trade among the six core members before exceptions and new restrictions introduced during the Asian economic crisis become permanent obstacles to region-wide, low-cost production of cars, steel, petrochemicals etc.

But ASEAN's obvious weaknesses, plus the first-time presence this year at the Regional Forum of North Korea's foreign minister, are reminders that Southeast Asia is a subsidiary region. The future of East Asia lies in the geopolitics of the Northeast, of which Okinawa is the epicenter.

ASEAN is incapable of thinking, let alone acting, as a group on geopolitical issues, but its members individually need to consider what influence they can bring to bear on them at a time when the situation in the Northeast is more fluid than at any time for several decades.

Three developments stand out that appear to put the United States and Japan in relatively defensive positions:


North Korea's change of tack (although probably not of heart), in which China has played a pivotal role.


The controversy over national missile defense, which has found the United States estranged from its European allies as well as under attack from China and Russia.


President Vladimir Pu-tin's diplomatic offensive, which suggests that Russia will again play a more active role in the Northeast Asian power balance.

China's role has been enhanced significantly, the Korean issue has been complicated by Mr. Putin's intervention, and the United States has become a target of general criticism over missile defense.

There is no immediate prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula, but that is certainly China's goal.The biggest losers so far appear to be Japan and Taiwan.

Both want to see some form of missile defense shield that might help them against China, not just against Pyongyang. Neither wants a reduction in the U.S. presence.

Both are concerned about what they see as a faulty U.S. perception of China's long-term goals and power potential. They are skeptical of the view that WTO membership and soft words will convert it to liberal democracy.

Japan is anxious not to lose influence in Korea. Neither Japan nor Taiwan trusts Russia.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia continues to look to the United States as guarantor of regional strategic stability and freedom of the seas. And it relies primarily on the United States and Japan for markets, capital and technology.

East Asia in general may over the next few years reduce its commercial dependenceon the West, and on the dollar. If so, the key to stability should be an advanced Japan, interested in peace and the status quo, more than a China which is still a developing country nursing historical resentments.

ASEAN members' views of China and Japan vary according to historical experience. But any developments in Northeast Asia which severely upset the strategic balance will have a major knock-on effect in the ASEAN region, where at least three states face Chinese territorial claims and a history of hegemonism.

If U.S. influence is to wane slowly, the states of Southeast Asia, all either relatively small or unstable, will need to direct their modest influence - and their port facilities - toward maintaining a balance in the Northeast which preserves all existing states and boundaries unless the inhabitants freely elect otherwise.