Sunday, July 24, 2005

Rice no-show casts cloud over Asia security forum


Rice no-show casts cloud over Asia security forum
By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A no-show by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at this week's annual east and southeast Asian security forum is raising concerns about U.S. commitment to a region where China is fast becoming the dominant player.

Rice's office insists other "essential travel" and a scheduling snafu are the main reasons for her missing the July 28-29 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Laos, a meeting attended regularly by her predecessors.

But the excuse has cut little ice in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-country bloc of 600 million people with oil and natural gas reserves seen as essential to fueling China's booming economy into the long-term.

"I know there has been a sense of disappointment," Kantathi Suphamongkhon, foreign minister of traditional U.S. ally Thailand, told reporters.

He stopped short of saying it was a snub, but acknowledged that analysts were saying Rice's decision to send her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to the Asia-Pacific region's only security forum was a symbol of the United States ceding the initiative to China.

"This was the concern. Hopefully, next year she will be able to come and things will fall into place. Hopefully, this is just a unique scheduling problem," Kantathi told Reuters.

With a carefully mapped-out strategy to guarantee stability in its own backyard -- and main energy gateway -- Beijing has cosied up to ASEAN over the past few years, signing a raft of friendship treaties, non-aggression pacts and free trade deals.

Conversely, ever since September 11, 2001, U.S. diplomacy in southeast Asia has been dominated by bilateral "war on terror" security concerns to the detriment of America's wider strategic role as a counterweight to a growing China, analysts say.

"I'm not sure if it's a very wise move by the U.S.," said K.S. Nathan of the Singapore-based Institute of South East Asian Studies. "They are, by default, giving the initiative to others, especially the rising powers of China and India."

"The Chinese are placing a lot of emphasis on multilateralism and quite clearly it will be an opportunity for China to strengthen its influence further."


Historically, the ARF, one of the few international clubs to include North Korea, has been dominated by the rare opportunity it permits for contact between top officials from Washington and Pyongyang to discuss the latter's nuclear ambitions.

North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun is due in Vientiane, although the traditional "will they, won't they" excitement over a U.S.-North Korean handshake has been superseded by Tuesday's scheduled resumption of six-way nuclear talks in Beijing.

Instead, the forum, which lumps ASEAN in with the likes of China, Japan, the United States, Russia, Australia, the two Koreas and India, is likely to focus on anti-terrorism issues, such as improving maritime security, especially in the key Malacca Strait.

A quarter of the world's trade and almost all oil imports to China and Japan pass through the narrow sea lane, which is patrolled jointly by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

At their last meeting, in Jakarta a year ago, ARF members agreed on the need to apply stringent airline standard security to shipping. They look likely to put flesh on the bones of this initiative, probably by increasing the scope of joint patrols.

The ARF, which follows the ASEAN meetings, is also likely to touch on democratic reform -- or its absence -- in Myanmar, given that Yangon's military junta is due to become ASEAN chairman in 2006.

Threatened with U.S. and European boycotts if the former Burma does take over the reins, ASEAN diplomats are praying Yangon's generals will tell the meeting they are stepping aside -- although in truth nobody really knows what they are planning.

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.