Search for Security In the Pacific
DESPITE the diplomatic smiles at an unprecedented summit of Asia-Pacific leaders this month, an uneasy, cold peace hangs over the most economically dynamic area of the world.Skip to next paragraph
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From boardrooms to warrooms, the region is probing for a new stability after the cold war's demise, communism's decline, and the closing out of Western colonialism in Asia.
The once-menacing ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet now rust in port. The 1991 retreat of the United States from its huge Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines has left a security vacuum. China's rush to riches has allowed it to flex new military muscle, and Japan's economic dominance has led it to search for a role as guardian of regional peace.
No longer convinced they can rely on Western partners, Asians are being forced to identify potential threats. Old suspicions of one another are reviving; large and small nations are stockpiling arms.
Why, its neighbors ask, did China test a nuclear bomb last month and why is it building a military airstrip on an island in the South China Sea? Why is Japan building a fast warship that could be converted to an aircraft carrier?
Smaller powers, too, from Thailand to North Korea, are adding formidable weapons to their arsenals. In 1991, Asia surpassed the Middle East as the top buyer of conventional arms, according to the the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. ``There is a strategic contest for leadership in the Asia-Pacific,'' says Derek da Cunha, a Singaporean military analyst. ``So far, [it's] a friendly arms race.''
By 1999, Asia will have shaken off the last vestige of Western colonialism when tiny Portuguese-owned Macao reverts back to China, almost 500 years after Portuguese ships landed at Malacca port on the Malaysian peninsula in search of spices, converts, and gold, becoming the first Westerners to plant a flag on Asian soil. Their arrival inaugurated centuries of colonialism in Asia, with European powers carving up much of the region for economic gain.
But even with the departure of the outsiders, ideological differences persist. Four of the world's five remaining Communist-run nations are in Asia. ``Asia is caught in a time warp,'' says Winston Lord, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
A number of latent issues and disputes could escalate into war in the absence of a security framework, concludes the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Power is being redistributed between China, Japan, and the US, as well as between the medium-sized powers of Indonesia, Korea, and India, says Bilahari Kausikan, head of the East Asia and Pacific bureau in Singapore's Foreign Ministry.
`YOU have all these adjustments going on. A lot of them can't be predicted,'' he says. ``The uncertainties are high even though military conflict is at its lowest. We have no precedents, no landmarks. Everyone is groping.''
To cope with the new anxieties, many Asian nations are using preventive diplomacy, forming institutions for cooperation and ``confidence-building'' that, at the very least, keep historic and potential adversaries talking to each other.
One such group is called the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, created just two years ago in an attempt to liberalize trade and investment. The group has shown only a little cohesion leading up to its Nov. 17-21 meeting in Seattle. Its formation has been sluggish because of political maneuvering among the region's leading nations. China, for example, had to be cajoled into accepting Taiwan and Hong Kong as APEC members.
Nonetheless, the region has ``a much greater sense of community,'' than it once did, Mr. Lord says. ``The outlines of a Pacific community are taking shape.'' President Clinton's request that a summit meeting be held was itself a bold move to re-exert US leadership in Asia.
A summit handshake between Mr. Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, coming four years after the Tiananmen massacre, could be regarded as either the start of a new US-China partnership or the onset of a post-cold-war contest for influence.