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A U.S.-dictated agenda

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

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T+T-

The ASEAN Regional Forum's annual plenary held in Brunei concludes with a call to support the U.S.' global "war against terrorism" even as China suggests an alternative strategy to fight terrorism.

THE Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is proud of its proactive role in having created and sustained the only political platform that is accessible to the major and emerging powers for periodic consultations on issues concerning security in the Asia Pacific region. Founded in Bangkok in 1994, the 23-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) brings together, besides the 10 members of the ASEAN, such diverse powers as the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India.

The latest annual plenary of the ARF, held on July 31 at Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, was the first to be held in the context of the ongoing global "war against terrorism". It was also the first meeting to take place against the backdrop of new questions in the region about future@china.communism (not a website but a political prognosis by China-watchers like Gordon Chang) and the first since the outbreak of the current terror-borne crisis in the skewed Pakistan-India relationship.

Hence the question was whether China would, at this ARF, play for the sweepstakes of stability - an international consensus to let Beijing set its own security and political agenda at a pace that is comfortable to it in the context of leadership-change possibilities in the country in a few months' time. A definitively more conspicuous issue was whether the U.S. will bend the collective ARF to support its anti-terror campaign. Yet another key puzzle, viewed from the standpoints of several key members of the ARF, was how far New Delhi might be able to convince its fellow-members in the Forum that the international community should rein in Pakistan so that it might end its sponsorship of terrorist incursions into India.

In the end, political cross-currents of direct relevance to each of these three trends came into varying degrees of focus at the ARF session itself and behind the scenes. Predictably, the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell played a prominent role in influencing the ARF's collective thinking on the matter of globalised terrorism and, equally significant, on the real issues in the India-Pakistan "brinkmanship". Powell's diplomatic reach itself went far beyond these two urgent subjects. For some high-profile ASEAN members and the U.S., a dominant theme was how to evolve ways and means to domesticate a reclusive North Korea as a "responsible player on the international stage and to deflect the country's leaders from their dreams of possessing and exporting a range of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles".

The U.S.' diplomatic hyperactivity at the ARF session was, for the most part, geared to convince the Forum that the planet was still very much under siege from sundry groups of political terrorists with a common anti-civilisation agenda. The ARF did take this view seriously and dedicated itself to a newly-minted "Statement on Measures against Terrorist Financing". In essence, the Statement would bind all the ARF members to a strict observance of the recent mandatory resolutions on the subject by the United Nations Security Council. Steps to "stop the financing of terrorism" and "freeze, without delay, the assets of terrorists and their associates" would be reinforced by measures to "close access (of terrorists) to the international financial system".

In line with the ARF's operational traditions, the session's host and Brunei's Foreign Minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, issued a summing-up statement that the assembled "Ministers (of all participant-countries) pledged their commitment to strengthen bilateral, regional and international cooperation in combating terrorism comprehensively to make the region a safer place for all". Implicit in this broad-band formulation was the renewal of a pledge to honour the relevant U.N. resolutions.

Well-recorded is the general international debate on the inadvisability of dividing the terrorists into categories of bad elements and good Track-II soldiers of some states. However, evident within the ARF's inner circles was the tendency of some states, notably China, to apply strict standards to differentiate among various forms of terrorism on the basis of their geostrategic impact. This would roughly translate into terrorism in the categories of intra-state violence, bilateral or regional concerns and the wider international or globalised variety of threats to civilisations.

While India did not quite look at terrorism through such a prism, the U.S. was more interested in creating a worldwide web of anti-terror alliances on the assumption that nuanced differences over notions of terrorism could be papered over as long as two or more parties were willing and able to cooperate with one another in a mutually beneficial manner. This accounted for the exclusive anti-terror declaration that the U.S. and the ASEAN signed. The centrepiece of the document was the pledge by the two sides to coordinate their intelligence-gathering about the ubiquitous terrorists. The U.S. would also help the ASEAN states, which find themselves in different stages in terms of security ethos and preparedness, build their counter-terrorism capabilities.

It was this aspect that led to much speculation about the possibility of a hidden U.S. agenda to engage in covert military activities within the South East Asian states in the name of counter-terror measures and to enlarge Washington's geostrategic footprint in the Asia Pacific region through an incremental military presence. Not surprisingly, Powell felt constrained to underline, in response to media queries, that there was no question of any U.S. designs of this kind. However, China, among all the participants, was quick to compete with the U.S. for not only the moral high ground but also the increasingly common geostrategic space in the counter-terror campaign itself.

Outlining a "new security concept", Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made out a case for an alternative to the doctrine of force and the threat of force in international politics inclusive of the counter-terrorism agenda now in vogue. "Mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination in inter-state cooperation" was commended by China as the best model for a new security architecture across the world in these troubled times of terrorism and other threats to global peace and stability.

It was in this overall framework of interactive diplomacy among the ARF participants that India's concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan were addressed. The traditional ASEAN Ministerial meeting, held on the eve of the ARF plenary, had virtually bracketed Pakistan, which is not a member of the Forum, with India for purposes of advocating a renewed dialogue between them. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a joint communique which was conspicuous for the absence of any mention of India as a victim of international terrorism. Nor was there any open or implicit reference to Pakistan's own pledge to end permanently all terrorist incursions into India.

It was this aspect that the ARF duly rectified. This was, of course, not the result of any Indian rope trick of the diplomatic kind, though External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and the Indian delegation did impress on the other countries how important it was to treat terrorism as terrorism and not as an instrument of a country's foreign policy. The U.S., Japan and China too played significant roles in this regard.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 17, 2002.)

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