Wednesday, July 25, 2001



Asia, U.S. need to
‘mind the gap’ in their
fears about security

On the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell's first journey to Asia for the Bush administration, Asia is anxious.

Moreover, Asians perceive that their anxieties are not shared by the United States. The United States rarely notices the "anxiety asymmetry." Both sides should "mind the gap." Untended differences will complicate policy coordination and increase mutual disenchantment.

While the people of Asia do not speak with one voice, impressions from a recent three-week visit across the region suggest that Asia and the United States are out of sync.

The United States and Asia differ on the source of security anxiety. Asia's unfinished nation-building tasks, exacerbated by the region's 1997 financial crisis, make social and economic management top priorities.

The Bush administration, by contrast, emphasizes military threats from rogue states or newly risen powers. Military modernization, including the deployment of missile defenses, is meant to soothe these apprehensions. It is Asia's rather than the United States' security discourse that is more mindful of emerging challenges. Asia hopes, if not expects, the United States to adjust its approach and to address the region's real needs.

One of these immediate needs is Indonesia. As a Japanese analyst counseled: "You've got time to deal with China, Indonesia must be dealt with now." Neighboring countries worry that refugees will clamber toward their shores.

Asia regards the United States as relatively unmindful of the wider implications of Indonesia's potential collapse, and obsessed with the military's human rights abuses. Some in Asia, while abhorring the excesses of Indonesia's military (and militias), emphasize engagement with an institution offering a semblance of stability. Hints that Washington is about to re-engage the Indonesian army are welcome, but Asians offer few concrete suggestions for a meaningful U.S. role in a scenario of Indonesian collapse.

Asia worries that if Indonesia, the anchor of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, does not hold, ASEAN may drift. ASEAN's self-esteem is already low. ASEAN's recent expansion is seen to have undermined consensus.

Though almost no Asian blames the United States for ASEAN's problems, there is dismay at Washington's perceived lack of attention. During Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's mid-June visit to the United States, he appealed for more U.S. focus on ASEAN.

What the United States can and should do is not, however, clear. ASEAN's problems speak to a wider truth: The sense that the region's security and political arrangements have never been so in flux. This has generated an interest in tinkering with the regional security, political and economic architecture, including new multilateral experiments.

Among Asia's myriad multilateral initiatives, ASEAN Plus Three, meaning the addition of China, Japan and South Korea, elicits the most excitement. Despite vague, labored explanations of its utility, Asians regard it as affording them "space" to maneuver and an assertion of "being a player, an organizer." Americans should not dismiss such sentiments by judging the ASEAN Plus Three only on concrete results.

A "wildcard" unnerving Asians is the United States-China relationship. Nations in the region do not want to choose between two potential antagonists. None can afford the economic dislocations and domestic disturbances of sustained tension.

Even close friends of the United States hint that strains between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China are not entirely the fault of China. Others say the United States is "making waves" with moves to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and to build missile defenses. Japan worries both about a rising China and a China that cannot extricate itself from its own "accumulated, internal contradictions."

One prominent Japanese analyst proposes that the U.S. and Japan develop a "shared image" of China and treat it as a problem, not a threat. Most Asians want to embed China in regional cooperative frameworks including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asean Plus Three while keeping close military and political cooperation with the United States.

Asia is quite clear about its problems, but vague about their solutions, including the role of the United States. The U.S. appears certain of threats to it and the fix for them, but pays too little heed to the gap with Asia. These asymmetries are dangerous to sound U.S.-Asia ties.

Ronald Montaperto is dean of academics and
Satu Limaye is director of research at the
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
in Honolulu. The views expressed are those
of the authors.

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