The counter-terrorism pact that United States Secretary of State Colin Powell signed last week with Asean is a landmark one. It is the first such pledge taken up by an entire region, albeit at US urging.
The agreement, which calls for the signatories to freeze the assets of terrorist groups, strengthen intelligence sharing and improve border patrols, has even had a slight proliferation effect: No sooner was it signed than Beijing proposed a similar arrangement for the Asean Plus Three group, which informally links South-east Asia to China, South Korea and Japan.
It would be unwise to view this new framework as a cure-all for the problems with US-South-east Asian cooperation on fighting terrorism which have emerged to date. Some are internal to the region, ranging from porous borders to leaders who fear cracking down on extremists will disturb a delicate balance within Muslim communities.
Moreover, the agreement is a declaration only, rather than a formal treaty. Nevertheless, it is not only a step up in US relations with South-east Asia, but also a new phase in broader American foreign policy to stem terrorism.
Since Sept 11, Washington has had to cobble together ad hoc arrangements with regional powers in pursuit of Al-Qaeda leaders and other terrorists.
The Asean agreement was inspired by discovery of a new terrorist network in South-east Asia earlier this year, but it is also long-term and preventative. It seeks to institutionalise and normalise counter-terrorism cooperation. Reasonable success could help the US foster similar arrangements in other regions.
Whether even modest hopes for the agreement can be realised will depend not only on South-east Asia, but also on the US. Washington has got the quid it wanted from Asean; it must now provide the quo.
First, Washington should balance its new regional approach to counter-terrorism in South-east Asia with a regional approach to human rights protection.
Many South-east Asians fear the new pact will encourage the Bush administration to abandon traditional concern for civil liberties and turn a blind eye to some leaders’ pursuits of opponents, in the guise of eradicating extremism.
In his swing around South-east Asia, Mr Powell maintained that he touched on human rights in every capital. Beyond intensifying these dialogues, the US should help establish a regional framework to protect rights, by giving greater support to the nascent Asean Human Rights Working Group.
Charged with developing a regional human rights code of conduct, the group comprises member commissions for human rights, but only half of the Asean states are represented. The US should encourage the remaining nations to form commissions for a full-fledged effort.
Second, Washington should heed Asean’s call for greater help in developing the four newest members of the association: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. These entrants have significant gaps with the original Asean states in economic and political development. Cooperation of every kind is hindered by these gaps. More specifically, as counter-terrorism is sharpened in the stronger countries, extremists are likely to take refuge in the weaker ones.
Lastly, in its fast-paced, global campaign against terrorism,the US should take care to nourish its diplomacy with South-east Asia. Thailand has proposed a US-Asean summit for next year, adjacent to the Apec meeting, which would be the first such summit of South-east Asian and US heads of state since 1984.
Washington should move quickly to finalise President George W. Bush’s participation. An early commitment would keep positive pressure on both sides during the start-up phase of this ground-breaking cooperation between Asean and the US.