America’s unilateralist surge is not sustainable, militarily or politically. To maintain a global war against terrorism, indeed to make it genuinely global, the United States must begin now to encourage and support regional counter-terrorism strategies. First on its list should be Southeast Asia.
There the framework of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, although strained by the Asian economic crisis and the incorporation of four new members, still offers a foundation for cooperation between the United States and Asia.
The recent arrests of dozens of Muslim extremists in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines shows that terrorism is a regional problem, and requires a regional solution. To make such a policy work, however, the Bush administration must be prepared to give a greater degree of judgment and initiative to ASEAN, and to allow mid- and long-term issues into a policy that has been intensely focused on the short-term. Both of these shifts will be uncomfortable for Washington.
The United States chafes at what it sees as the slow pace of ASEAN action. But this irritation masks a larger reality: Attempts by Washington to introduce its own vision of a regional framework for Asia have historically been doomed. ASEAN was established in 1967, a few short years after the collapse of the U.S.-led Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO. As recently as the mid-1990s, Asian leaders rejected a U.S. attempt to form an Asian human rights network modeled after the Helsinki Accords.
Washington is in no better position to launch its own model of regional cooperation on counter-terrorism. Political constraints on both sides of the Pacific prevent the quasi-combat “training exercises” in the Philippines being duplicated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. On a more basic level, as extremism in Southeast Asia is debated within the Muslim communities of the region, attempts by the United States to manage the treatment of extremism in a high-profile way will only add fuel to the flames.
Since Sept. 11, ASEAN has made several moves to develop a common approach to counter-terrorism. At Manila’s behest, a troika made up of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia was formed to discuss joint policy. Border cooperation between Indonesia and Malaysia has increased, and the first meeting of ASEAN military chiefs was held. Counter-terrorism will be high on the agenda for the ASEAN regional forum this year. These are hopeful signs, but they don’t yet amount to a regional framework.
How can the United States encourage the development of such a framework? First, it must look beyond the immediate task of apprehending extremists and support regional cooperation that addresses the root causes of discontent.
The United States does not give much aid to Southeast Asia and what little it provides is focused on individual countries. Additional funds should be provided to help build regional networks to address the economic development gaps among Southeast Asian countries, good governance and human rights issues as ASEAN defines them. In some cases, U.S. support can strengthen ongoing initiatives, such as the ASEAN Human Rights Working Group.
In addition, the United States should encourage the development of nongovernmental networks in the region. For both governmental and non-governmental efforts, Washington would do well to call upon American nongovernmental organizations with solid field experience to manage projects that support these linkages.
Washington also needs to pay more attention to Southeast Asia in its Asian-Pacific dialogues. In recent years, the United States has seen the ASEAN regional forum less as an opportunity to discuss Southeast Asian concerns and more as a launching pad for initiatives in U.S. policy toward Northeast Asia. In 2002, Washington should return the focus of its interest in the forum to Southeast Asia.
In the reconfigured security environment after Sept. 11, U.S. interests in that region are no less vital than in Northeast Asia.