ASEAN Nations Seek To Strengthen Ties

AN alliance of six Southeast Asian countries is groping for a new profile amid increasing political and economic shifts. Unlike Europe, Asia has not been transformed by reduced superpower tensions and an emerging new world order, analysts and government officials say.

Still, change is under way, posing new challenges for the 23-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei:

Broadening superpower ties are beginning to break cold war stalemates in Korea, Cambodia, and other Asian flashpoints.

China is signaling a readiness to resolve long-standing conflicts with Asian rivals.

Other Asian powers want to draw ASEAN into a large economic framework centered on the Pacific Rim.

The United States is reducing its regional military presence, raising questions about how to fill a security vacuum.

Efforts are under way to end the Cambodia conflict, the issue that has most shaped the Southeast Asian alliance.

``ASEAN faces the intellectual challenge to do some rethinking,'' says Sabam Siagian, editor of the Jakarta Post and a political commentator. ``Cambodia has given us an excellent opportunity to get in tune with what's happening elsewhere in the world.''

ASEAN members were miffed when, without consultation, the US shifted diplomatic support from the Cambodian resistance and announced negotiations with Vietnam. The policy switch could lead to a broader rapprochement with Vietnam, the traditional foe of several ASEAN members, and redraw the region's political and economic landscape.

Some ASEAN diplomats predict that the new US policy change and superpower efforts to ease regional conflicts will prod the organization into action. ``There is less reason for the superpowers to court us,'' says an Asian diplomat. ``We have to work harder to make ourselves relevant.''

Military relationships also are in a state of flux. As the US negotiates the future of US military bases in the Philippines, Washington also is exploring wider defense links with other ASEAN countries. The US is close to an agreement with Singapore to expand refueling and other naval support and is exploring a similar arrangement with Brunei.

Recently, Australia proposed a common-security relationship for Asia similar to the Conference on Security and Cooperation that encompasses countries in NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Economically, ASEAN also is looking at new alignments. This week, ASEAN and other Pacific Rim countries meet in Singapore to discuss a proposed 12-country forum for Asian-Pacific economic cooperation.

The idea is backed by the US and Japan but has raised concerns among ASEAN members such as Malaysia that larger economic powers will overshadow the Southeast Asian bloc. ``There is a very real danger that we might be left behind while those around us strengthen their economic, trade, and industrial links,'' said Malaysian Foreign Minister Aby Hassan Omar.

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