Asia Pacific Experts Identify Priorities as East Asia Restructures

Date: 08-12-2005

Rise of China, U.S. Role in the Region Dominate Dialogue

HONOLULU (Aug. 12) – The rise of China and the role of the major powers, including the U.S., in East Asia as it restructures dominated dialogue at the East-West Center’s 6th Senior Policy Seminar, August 8-10.

The U.S. can play a positive role in Asia as a stabilizing but not “overbearing force,” said Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister, at a public program at the seminar’s conclusion on Wednesday. An American presence in the Asia Pacific region, “behind the scenes, listening, observing and helping the players in the region to feel comfortable with themselves while they are adjusting to their identities” would provide a sense of stability that would be very helpful, he said. “I’m glad to see this very model of American presence in development and I think Asia Pacific welcomes that.”

Pitsuwan, along with Ralph L. Boyce, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, and Hitoshi Tanaka, former Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, spoke at the public program. They were among 28 distinguished diplomats, including five former U.S. ambassadors, government officials, economists and academics who assembled at the Center to discuss security issues in the Asia Pacific region. They represented Australia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.

Among the Asia Pacific experts offering their perspectives on key security and strategic issues facing the region were:

J. STAPLETON ROY, Managing Director, Kissinger Associates, Inc.; former U.S. Ambassador to China, Indonesia and Singapore: Roy believes East Asia is the most promising and at the same time the most dangerous region in the world today, where the potential exists for conflict between major powers, particularly with regard to the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. He said there is no question the Bush Administration recognizes the importance of Asia but that top foreign policy officials will continue to be distracted because of the war in Iraq.

Among the most pressing challenges facing the U.S. and countries in the Asia Pacific region: how to deal with China’s economic success and growing influence as well as the rise of nationalism in China, Japan and South Korea. Roy said tensions between China and Japan are the worst in three decades and worried that the U.S. may find it difficult to use its influence constructively to address this problem, which adversely affects U.S. interests. “How can you build an East Asian community if two regional powers are engaged in a serious rivalry?” he asked. It’s a challenge that he believes calls for an integrated U.S. foreign policy agenda and should be attended to sooner rather than later.

THOMAS HUBBARD, Senior Advisor, Akin Gump; former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and the Philippines. Hubbard said he was not surprised that the latest round of six-party talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula did not result in a resolution before they recessed on August 7. “There is no magic bullet,” he said. “The solution is not going to be easy.”

While Hubbard is skeptical about whether North Korea has changed its position on disarmament, he said there were some positive signs, including the fact that North Korea had not immediately turned down South Korea’s offer to supply electricity if Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear program. In the past, he said the North might have refused such an initiative because it would make for a level of dependence on the South.

Hubbard believes to make true progress on a resolution will require the Bush administration designating a senior and full-time negotiator. He sees the six-party talks as a stabilizing factor that enables the parties to address issues like human rights and the abduction of Japanese by North Korea, and to deal with the potential nexus between Pyongyang’s nuclear program and terrorism.

“I’m reasonably optimistic that talks can and will continue,” he said, adding that the talks are a way to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions as “the two Koreas move down the road to resolution and eventual reunification.”

SAMINA AHMED, Project Director, South Asia International Crisis Group, Pakistan: Ahmed noted that the normalization process between India and Pakistan is ongoing, the result of a dialogue that began in January 2004 between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf. But she cautioned that the situation is fragile.

Ahmed continues to believe the dialogue between India and Pakistan toward a durable peace “will only prosper if it is gradual, sustained and held mostly outside the glare of the media.” She also recommended the countries “should resist the temptation to push the pace on contentious issues,” including Kashmir, “and opt instead to move steadily toward a normalization of relations.”

RALPH L. BOYCE, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand: Boyce said the U.S. recognizes that each country in the region may have a different approach to how proactively or aggressively it addresses the global war on terrorism. “The overwhelmingly moderate, open and tolerant tendencies of Muslims in this region have very much reasserted themselves,” he said.

The ambassador said the response to the tsunami was a textbook example of how to respond to disaster management, noting the success of the collaborative effort was the result of five decades of cooperation and interaction between the U.S. and countries in Asia. Military, civilian relief agencies, United Nations’ organizations and the private sector “demonstrated how a truly multilateral relief effort can work in a positive way.”

Boyce suggested there is a sense that ASEAN is “a little bit adrift” in trying to establish itself as a relevant institution. “On the other hand, imagining Southeast Asia without ASEAN,” he said is “almost an unthinkable possibility because the 10 countries are so different they need something that provides cohesion and a place to discuss their issues.”

SURIN PITSUWAN, member of the Thai Parliament and former Foreign Affairs Minister: Pitsuwan discussed the likelihood of the emergence of a new regional institution in East Asia when leaders meet in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the year.

He said that Islam in Southeast Asia is more moderate, tolerant and flexible. He suggested that Muslim countries in Southeast Asia “could be a model for the world in dealing with the Muslim world in general” because the countries “are willing to open up, willing to innovate, willing to try different initiatives, willing to accommodate modernity and globalization with confidence, with a positive attitude.”

Pitsuwan said, “Force alone cannot solve the problem of violence and conflict. In the end you will have to talk about human qualities, developing human resources, developing competitiveness so that the younger generation … can have a stake in the age of globalization. And that’s the investment that I think the world has to make and that I think the American government and people have to make.”

HITOSHI TANAKA, former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Japan: Tanaka said Japan is getting “much more self-assertive” and independent in determining its foreign policy goals. “That will be the future tendency,” he said, adding that “at the same time we have a very strong feeling that a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance would be good for us, for our diplomacy, particularly in East Asia.”

He said Japan is coming to a crossroads in its relationship with China, in determining what type of relationship to have with “a growing China.” “That will be a crucial issue for Japanese diplomacy,” he said. “We must base our discussion on common interests and we need to think not just in the short-term perspective but in the longer term perspective.”

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center