DESPITE its diversity, Asia is now seen as ripe for a European-style security arrangement to contain its potential post-cold-war conflicts.
The Clinton administration has endorsed moves for multilateral talks on security, and Japan opened "sub-regional" negotiations with Southeast Asia this year. The crisis over North Korea's apparent attempt to build an atomic bomb also has brought unusual consultations among nations in Northeast Asia.
"Old security concerns are fading. New issues are appearing. The desire to strengthen the regional dialogue ... is natural and understandable," United States Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost said recently. "It is an idea whose time has come."
Other reasons for the new concern are China's boosting of its military budget, renewed violence in Cambodia, and a budding arms race in Southeast Asia that followed the US withdrawal from its military bases in the Philippines last year.
Any further US troop pullouts from the region, which presumably would leave a "power vacuum," have motivated many Asian leaders to open discussions with each other on shaping a new balance of power in the region.
A potential flashpoint are rival claims by many countries on several of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China's Navy took over six of Vietnam's islands in 1988, killing at least 70 people.
Since then, Indonesia has led the way to open multilateral talks on the Spratlys. "The region's military alliances and its military buildup are now yielding to dialogue," says Philippines Foreign Minister Roberto Romulo. "A long-term vision is needed for the region," he says.
Many Asian leaders want the US to take the lead in a new regional security arrangement - mainly to be assured that they will not face confrontations with one another, says Toyoo Gyohten, chairman of the Bank of Tokyo. Asia less secure
"When the cold war was over, we were extremely happy," he says. "But while Europe and the Western Hemisphere enjoy a high degree of political stability, Asia is more complex. What we are going to see in this part of the world is a coexistence of several world powers."
Most recent calls for an Asian security arrangment have come from countries on the edges of the region. The first call came in 1986 from then-Soviet-leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But both Australia and Canada have offered ideas on security talks. The US under President Bush was reluctant to fully endorse a regional approach, preferring to build on the many bilateral military ties that the US has.
"If there is no US military force in Asia," says Masao Okonogi, professor of international relations at Tokyo's Keio University, "there can be no stablity in the region."
Many Asian nations want a United States military presence to prevent any resurgence of the Japanese military and to keep Washington's interest high in the region and as a way to keep US markets open for Asian exports.
Last month, Canada's minister for external affairs, Barbara McDougall, called for a new Asia-Pacific security forum, saying "tensions in some parts of the region are increasing. We believe it will be prudent to build security fora now before the need becomes urgent," she said. US stakes
Winston Lord, former US ambassador to China and the new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told Congress, "We must develop new mechanisms to manage or prevent emerging concerns."
"We have enormous stakes in the Pacific. We need to integrate our economic, political, and security policies. We need fresh approaches and structures of cooperation," Mr. Lord said.
Japan, however, opposes a region-wide security forum modeled after Europe's Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Officials say the region's diversity, from New Zealand to Nepal, would make such an idea unworkable.
Instead, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa wants a two-track approach: a sub-regional cooperation to settle disputes and only a political dialogue in the region to "enhance the sense of mutual reassurance." Japan also is trying to set up regional control of arms exports.
In February, Japan began its first security dialogue with the six-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which consists of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and the Philippines. A followup meeting is expected this fall.
Japan has agreed to set up a standing organization with Russia and the US to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific region this fall, although the forum will be largely academic.