PRESIDENT Clinton's new vision of a "Pacific community" faces a reality check next week when most of the region's foreign ministers meet in Singapore.
The closed-door gathering is a historic attempt to define security threats ranging from China's military buildup to Japan's wavering attitude toward becoming a nuclear power. Mr. Clinton has proposed that the region rely on an arrangement of "shared strength."
Little if any agreement is expected from the informal talks July 26-28, but the fact that nations from Russia to New Zealand are joining a regional security dialogue will "help ensure that no country is isolated," as Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in Tokyo recently.
A more formal dialogue on security may not start for another five years or so, Mr. Goh added. East Asia is still prone to "flashpoints" after the cold war, he said, and is slowly seeking a stable security environment.
A basic challenge, he says, is that "the world's only superpower, the US, and the world's two emerging powers, Japan and China, have yet to clearly define their relationships."
Clinton's vision for the Asia-Pacific region, as spelled out in his July 10 speech in Seoul, calls for no single security alliance, such as NATO in Europe, but "multiple new arrangements to meet multiple threats and opportunities ... like overlapping plates of armor."
Many East Asian nations see multilateral security talks as a way to keep American forces in the region if the US becomes more self-absorbed with economic woes. Clinton's hesitation to intervene in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina caused worry among US allies in Asia. In speech after speech, Clinton officials have had to say that the US is not retreating from the region.
"The US presence in Asia has been a check against potential adventurism and aggression and has created a climate of stability permitting the evolution of democratic and economic progress," says William Perry, US deputy secretary for defense.
But he adds that the US wants "more mature" security ties with its Asian allies. "In Asia, we are shifting from a large, permanent US military presence to a more widely dispersed regional posture," Mr. Perry says, in which the US will rely on its bilateral security alliances.
But Asian leaders also worry the US might try to dominate the dialogue, demanding more market access for US goods in exchange for military protection and pushing too hard on human rights and democracy issues.
"Some Americans have perceived Asian countries as the main threat to the United States, instead of a new challenge," writes Thai commentator Kavi Chongkittavorn in the Nation newspaper. Others, such as Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, want no more than a dialogue on security issues.
Next week's forum is actually an add-on to the regular meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
ASEAN, which started as a non-communist group in 1976 to cope with security problems in Southeast Asia after Hanoi's victory in the Vietnam War, has proven to be a stable forum to deal with a number of issues, such as the Cambodia conflict.
The so-called "post-ministerial conference" will bring together its biggest trading partners - Australia, the US, the European Community, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea - as well as representatives from China, Russia, Laos, and Vietnam.
The talks are designed to help the nations understand each other's territorial concerns and military plans. Eventually, they could lead to cooperation, such as collective patrolling of sea lanes, joint military exercises, or an arms registry.
The most immediate concerns are North Korea's nuclear and missile program and overlapping claims on the Spratly Islands in the resource-rich South China Sea. But also, a number of Southeast Asian nations are beefing up their military hardware.
Indonesia plans to buy warships from the former east German Navy. Thailand may buy F-16 fighters. Malaysia plans to buy Russian MIG-29s and F/A-18D fighters from the US.
The longer-term concerns are over the future military ambitions of China, which is building up its navy, and Japan, which has the world's third largest defense budget.
In May, Japan and China decided to open their own security talks. China's military modernization has created new worries in Tokyo. Officials want Beijing to release specific information about its defense buildup.
"Our position is that in this part of the world, all nations must be careful not to start an arms race," Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa says.