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US push for new security mechanism irks Southeast Asia

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 13, 2008
US-led moves to turn a forum grappling with the North Korean nuclear crisis into a permanent security mechanism are frustrating Southeast Asia's bid to become a key player in regional security, experts say.

The United States is pushing for the six-party nuclear talks, also involving China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, to be transformed into a permanent Northeast Asian mechanism for resolution of regional security issues.

A Russia-led working group on a "Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism" was established following a landmark agreement by the six parties in February 2007, in which North Korea agreed to close its key nuclear plant.

But officials in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are worried such a mechanism could undermine its role in regional security management.

ASEAN hosts the biggest official security umbrella grouping in the Asia-Pacific -- the 14-year-old ASEAN Regional Forum or ARF comprising the 10 ASEAN states together with 17 others, including the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, North Korea, Australia, India and Pakistan.

"There is a concern in Southeast Asia that such a Northeast Asia forum would actually undermine the ARF," Muthiah Alagappa, an Asian expert at the Hawaii-based East West Center told a conference in Washington on Friday.

"The belief is that if the big powers all get together in another forum, then ARF would be sidelined," he said.

But Alagappa felt the fears might be misplaced.

"I don't think Southeast Asia should delude itself that ARF is the overall (security) umbrella. The US is a global power, China is rising power, Japan is the second largest economy, they are going to deal with the issues."

Aside from the ARF, the ASEAN group has two other key forums where security is often discussed -- an annual summit with China, Japan and South Korea, known as the ASEAN plus Three process, and an East Asian Summit involving the 13 countries as well as India, Australia and New Zealand.

"ARF is only part of the regional security architecture, which also consists of the ASEAN plus Three as well as the East Asian Summit," one ASEAN diplomat in Washington stressed.

Some in ASEAN perceive that the United States is promoting the Northeast Asian security forum because it is not a participant in the East Asian Summit.

The United States was not invited to the summit because it has refused to sign an ASEAN non-aggression pact, a prerequisite for membership in the 16-nation grouping.

US suggestions to expand the six-party forum, all of whose members are in the ARF, to include other ARF countries as well such as Australia are also viewed with suspicion by some in ASEAN.

"Any bid to undermine ASEAN would be dangerous, considering its role so far as a bulwark against aggression by big powers," said one ASEAN official.

But US experts said ASEAN has nothing to fear.

"The Northeast Asian security mechanism may be perceived by some Southeast Asian officials or scholars as undermining the ARF but the reality is that in Asia today, there are multiple levels of multilateralism and it's not unhealthy if there is a certain amount of competition," said Michael Green, a former top Asian affairs official in the White House.

In an indication that the Northeast Asian mechanism will continue to be pursued by the successor of President George W. Bush, who has only nine months left in the White House, Green said all three prospective presidential candidates -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- were in favour of the plan.

"None of them are opposed to it although they may have different views on the (North Korean) nuclear issue," he said.

Green also cited "obvious" differences between the 27-nation ARF and the Northeast Asian mechanism, which is expected to be much smaller.

"The ARF has some useful roles but it cannot resolve conflicts or build confidence building measures that truly affect security policy," he said.

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