Search for Security In the Pacific

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

``The US sees the importance of its role in Asia, especially while China's intentions are still not clear and because millions of US jobs depend on maintaining stability [in Asia],'' says a US diplomat in Singapore. ``We are still worried about the disparity between what China says and what it is doing.''

China's plans to build a far-reaching, ``blue water'' navy, its recent nuclear test, its forceful seizure of islands from Vietnam in 1988, and its reluctance to rule out a violent takeover of Taiwan have kept its neighbors on guard.

Few analysts say China is a threat now, as it races toward market wealth and appears to prefer regional stability. ``After the cold war, the main issue in Asia is the absence of an overriding threat,'' says Zakaria Haji Ahmad, a security expert at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

China's neighbors worry that it may want to reassert its historic role as the center of Asia, winning back what it thinks it has lost in wealth, territory, or influence.

Should China be estranged or engaged? The US is shifting toward engagement, while some nations, such as Malaysia, are not sure. ``If you accept China as a military power, then you don't confront it,'' Dr. Ahmad says.

After the Tiananmen massacre, China looked for friends in Asia to side with it against the West. It found some backing in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a noncommunist group that includes Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

``We don't feel there is a threat from China - for many years,'' says Tommy Koh, a former Singaporean ambassador to the US. ``But memories of China [under Mao Zedong] using the Chinese in Southeast Asia are still alive.''

Since 1977, ASEAN has debated how to rid Southeast Asia of any big-power influence by creating a ``zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality.'' But it now realizes that the idea was a pipe dream. Sitting at the crossroads of two oceans, the region's geography is its destiny.

``We tried to deny that there would be a power vacuum if the US withdrew,'' says Kusuma Snitwongse, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies in Bangkok. ``While it's old thinking to suggest that we should hang on to a US [military presence], in this uncertain period there's an ambivalence. If the US leaves, will Japan and China be more aggressive in the region?''

At present, Japan is seen as a very theoretical threat. Its military is constrained by a war-renouncing constitution and a dependence on US forces under a security treaty. The Japanese Army has only 180,000 soldiers, and that number is shrinking. Japan's new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, wants his country to lead the world in disarmament.

But what worries its neighbors is that Japan could turn its technological prowess into deadly weapons overnight or leave the American security umbrella. Some Japanese officials warn privately that Japan might build a nuclear bomb if North Korea does.

And a widespread feeling exists in the region that Japan has failed to learn from its occupation of Asia before and during World War II. ``For Japan not to tell its children what happened in the war - it causes a lot of worry,'' Mr. Koh says.

Hoping to change that image, Japan made its first postwar overseas deployment of troops in 1992 by sending 600 soldiers to Cambodia to aid United Nations peacekeeping. But, Mr. Kusuma says, the deployment ``didn't change perceptions of Japan. In fact, it reinforces the fear of Japan, because Southeast Asia insisted that Japan remain only under UN command.''

Likewise, the threat of Russia's Pacific Fleet, while diminished, has not evaporated in the eyes of many Asians, especially since Moscow seeks to maintain some of its access to the warm-water port in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay.

Unlike Europe, where communism has gone to ashes, Asia still has remnants of the cold war, such as the standoff between North and South Korea, that make forming a security framework difficult.

In 1992, ASEAN decided to build on its 25-year success as a friendly regional group and invited Japan, China, Russia, as well as South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Western nations to start a new group devoted to tackling security issues.

``The problem is not how to exclude anybody, but how to keep this happy state of affairs,'' Mr. Kausikan says. ``It's a matter of a balance of big powers, not the vacuum of power.''

The new group, known enigmatically as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), met for a Sunday dinner last July in Singapore. Substantive talks are slated for next summer in Bangkok.

ARF has had a rough start. Japan did not want Russia and China to join. The US did not want Vietnam. ``We have to go slowly,'' Kusuma says. ``It's a meeting of the not-like-minded.''

But, Koh says, ``the takeoff of ARF has really surprised us. At a minimum, you keep all the countries talking. The ASEAN way of doing things is very gradualist.''

ARF's progress may be measured in inches. The first hurdle is how to convince each state to be more open about its military situation, especially arms purchases.

``We need to develop patterns of behavior that would lead people to resolve problems peacefully,'' the US diplomat says.

Even ASEAN, despite its members' successful track record of working together since 1967 on various issues, has failed to form its own security forum - until now.

For the first time, defense officials from all six ASEAN states will meet in coming months as a prelude to the ARF meeting. One of the first steps may be for each nation to issue a ``white paper'' describing military strategy and weapons.

``ASEAN is not and will not become a military pact,'' says Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. ``But consultations among defense and military officials will help build an environment of confidence.''

The move is risky. ASEAN does not want to appear to be an anti-China bloc. Vietnam, a historic enemy of China, wants to join the group, but ASEAN is wary.

``Once you form an ASEAN security forum, you have to ask, `Who is the enemy?' '' says Lee Tai To of the National University of Singapore. ``ASEAN has already been a sort of secret security group - containing conflict with each other.''

Indonesia's recent purchase of three former East German submarines has helped fuel concerns of an ASEAN arms race. So has Malaysia's plan to buy 18 Russian-built MIG-29 jet fighters and 8 US-made F-18 Hornets. Thailand plans to buy a Spanish-made helicopter carrier.

This nascent arms race in Asia must be kept in context, says Dr. da Cunha, a fellow at Singapore's Institute for Southeast Asian Studies. ``Each nation buys weapons for a number of reasons, usually just for a matter of national pride. One of the lesser motives these days is to keep pace with potential adversaries.''

UNTIL now ASEAN nations have had only a spider-web of bilateral military ties with each other, usually to conduct joint exercises. Singapore keeps a battalion in Brunei, primarily to help guard it against Malaysia. ``They all still don't trust each other,'' Da Cunha says.

The US remains the glue among ASEAN militaries. Since the Philippines closed the US bases on its soil in 1991, the US has had ready access to commercial ship-repair yards in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Malaysia, despite its anti-US rhetoric, holds the most bilateral military exercises with the US.

``The withdrawal from the Philippines has allowed closer ties for the US with several Southeast Asian militaries,'' the US diplomat says. Singapore is now home to more than 100 US military personnel. Logistics and training exercises for the US Navy's 7th Fleet are managed here, and jets of the US Air Force 497th fighter squadron practice in Singapore at least six times a year.

The US presence, although small, serves as a ``trip-wire,'' Da Cunha says. ``No country wants to cross swords with America on day one of a conflict. The security of the US and Singapore are now one.''

One US Navy commander in Singapore admits the US is here mainly for political reasons. ``We could provide these services anyplace. But it allows Singapore to be a player in Southeast Asia, and it keeps the US more involved in the region.''

``This is the most benign presence,'' the officer adds. ``We have no combat capability. But we're right on the highway between two oceans.''

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