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The ASEAN Regional Forum: Asian Security without an American Umbrella

Authored by Dr. Larry M. Wortzel. | December 1996

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There are some real problems for ASEAN, not the least of which is how to retain initiative and control as the dialogue expands and new countries are admitted to ASEAN. Canada pushes for formality, Northeast Asian countries push for separate forums, and the United States continues to pursue its policy of "enlargement," which for ASEAN means pressure over human rights. And the United States is trying to tell the ASEAN ministers what countries to admit to the status of dialogue partners.

ASEAN's perception is that the United States does not have a post-Cold War policy and strategy. In fact, the ambiguity of U.S. policy has been a major problem, one that was not corrected until the successive rounds of Chinese threats against Taiwan, when Washington finally deployed a decisive naval force of two carrier battle groups off Taiwan as a signal to Beijing that the United States will not stand by to see a military resolution to the political dispute between the Mainland and Taiwan. Although it may not be what ASEAN wants to hear, the U.S. policy and strategy has been set forth reasonably clearly. It is not a single-minded containment strategy. Nor is it a strategy that replaces the Soviet threat with a Chinese threat. China does not threaten the United States at the present time, and U.S. interests are best served by the inclusion of China in a dialogue as a responsible regional actor.

The United States seeks to maintain regional stability in the world; seeks to avoid ethnic and religious strife; wants to counter weapons and nuclear, biological, and chemical proliferation; and seeks to advance democracy and human rights throughout the world. Participating in the multilateral dialogues like the ARF is a tenet of the new U.S. policy. The policy is flexible and is designed to bring the nations of the world into the international community. The strategy to implement the policy has political, military, and economic components that permit Washington to employ U.S. power and pursue U.S. interests in a measured way. There is a plan of application for the regional interests of the United States and the existence of the ARF advances those interests. The United States is engaged and involved in Asia.

Dialogue may not work, and exercises are demon-strations of military force. If the ARF is to be more than a venue for communication and dialogue on transparency, it is really up to ASEAN to make it so.102 If ASEAN is afraid of the Chinese "Dragon," ASEAN must continue to engage China or must confront China on issues either as a body or as individual states. However, the "slow dance" in Bangkok in July 1994 failed to keep the Chinese from seizing another part of the Spratlys in February 1995, when Beijing took over Mischief Reef. Perhaps the ASEAN states would do well to review again the U.S. policy, which permits pressure through a variety of levers: economic, political, military, and even ideological. With such strong economies but weak militaries, there could still be a way to tame the "Dragon" through economic pressure. China depends heavily on investment to prop up its regime and stabilize economic growth. In the final analysis, however, as Indonesian strategist Dewi Fortuna Anwar pointed out, fundamentally, the "Dragon" respects strength. 103


102. Shambaugh, "Pacific Security in the Pacific Century," p. 428. Shambaugh criticizes the ARF as "an important channel of communication, but of little significance except for articulating perceptions, voicing concerns, seeking clarification, and building confidence." He dismisses a little too quickly some very important aspects of diplomacy and security policy.

103. See International Herald Tribune, August 16, 1996, p.4.