Bringing order to a vibrant but chaotic Asia

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Bringing order to a vibrant but chaotic Asia

“The United States is back in Asia. But I want to underscore that we are back to stay.” Those were the words recently spoken by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she gave a speech at the East-West Center in Hawaii on the regional architecture of Asia. As if to back up her claim, the secretary’s first official trip was to Asia, and she has traveled four times to the region in the past year. The first ever U.S.-Asean summit was held coming into this administration, while the first state leader hosted by President Obama was Indian Prime Minister Singh.

So regardless of whether there has been any concrete progress in the relationship between Washington and the region as a whole, the political will to elevate Asia’s relevance on Washington’s part is certainly there. “America’s future is linked to the future of the Asia-Pacific region,” Clinton said, a clear indicator that America sees itself as a major stakeholder here.

In her speech, the secretary underlined the importance of finding the right mechanism that would embrace all of Asia’s sociocultural and political-security concerns and integrate its economies. She is not alone, as for years diplomats have banged their heads against the perennial question of how to form a regional cooperative structure along the lines of NATO, and they have no answer yet. The rationale certainly exists, as the past two decades have seen the region rising from the backyard of the international community to a growth engine for the rest of the world with billions of people serving as a base. It’s only natural that it be in everyone’s interests to maintain that kind of prosperity.

The Asean forum has done its fair part on the economic side, but when it comes to security, existing structures such as the Asean Regional Forum leave much to be desired. For a region that actually has the potential to become another powder keg, this is a serious problem.

There are de facto nuclear powers here, like China, India and Pakistan. Then there’s self-proclaimed nuclear state North Korea, followed by countries like Japan that could go nuclear instantly if they felt the current nuclear umbrella provided by Washington wasn’t sufficient to guarantee their security.

Japan has the technology and vast plutonium reserves. It may be looking only for an excuse. In that regard, as another beneficiary of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, even South Korea is now voicing its right to establish a closed nuclear fuel cycle that would enable the country, if it comes to that, to have its own nuclear weapons. With two nuclear tests conducted next door, it should come to no one’s surprise that this country is reluctant to put all its eggs into one basket. While Washington has strongly opposed such a move, the reality is that if North Korea opts to conduct a couple more nuclear tests then all bets are off as to what South Korea may do.

But even without the nuclear issue, the massive concentration of conventional arms in the two Koreas is threat enough to destabilize the region at any moment. That is why the current six-party talks framework, intended to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, has been seen as a future platform for a regional security structure. Thus, the success of the framework is pivotal in forming a nucleus for any forthcoming structure.

But there is more.

The prevailing mistrust toward Japan, which actually has the third-largest defense budget in the world despite a constitution that forbids it to project its forces actively abroad, is something that will remain in place unless Japan truly looks its past in the eye and reconciles with its neighbors. Historical grievances are always hard to put behind - and Japan is not the only one facing its own ghost. It would take a brave administration in Japan, or for that matter in any other country, to find a lasting solution to hatred and mistrust deeply rooted in history. Then there are territorial disputes that have hijacked bilateral relations, with the disputed Dokdo Islets, known as Takeshima in Japan, a case in point. Throw in the volatile Taiwan Strait and you have more than enough territorial disputes.

In addition, despite its economic rise, the prevailing inequality between nations in the region, the lack of full-fledged democracies, the diverse religions, ranging from Islam to Hinduism and political instability in some nations all hinder the buildup of a true regional apparatus. Ironically, these are also at the same time the very reasons one is needed.

The United States has several bilateral military alliances in place with countries such as South Korea, Japan and Australia. These are important cornerstones for any future security framework that without doubt will be anchored by America to some extent. With its troop presence in Japan and on the Korean Peninsula, the United States is playing the perfect balancer role in the region, as its own interests are closely linked with Asia’s. It will try to split the burden with China and some other party, although it’s not clear at the moment who that will be. Once it was thought Japan would take on the mantle of regional leader, but that has not happened, and it may never happen for various reasons.

So far, Washington has said all the right things, but in order to bring about real change, it needs to push other nations in the region to do some work. The toughest part would be to choose the best framework among the existing ones and groom it to become one that can embrace all the complex structures that form Asia.

As Secretary Clinton put it, “It’s important that we do a better job of trying to define which organizations will best protect and promote our collective future.”

On a different note, it’s also important to send a message to the public in Asia that Washington views the region as a partner. President Obama gave an excellent speech on the Middle East and America’s aspirations. Perhaps a similar message will help form the kind of public consensus that can become the catalyst for something greater.

In that regard, when President Barack Obama visited Seoul in November, he could have opted to visit a school and show some interaction with the public. Why that wasn’t done is still perplexing to me, and I think it was a mistake that shouldn’t have been made.

In the end, we should not forget that the security framework serves both as a protector and facilitator of democracy and free markets, which will eventually become the basis for further development in the poorer Asian nations. With that in mind, the APEC leaders’ meeting next year in Honolulu, President Obama’s hometown, should provide a perfect opportunity to shift into second gear and lay the foundations for a much-needed regional framework for Asia.

By Brian Lee []

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