CHANG MAI, Thailand — The recent historic handshake between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang captivated the world. As emotions over the summit subside, what can be said about Korean developments when viewed from a broader Asian perspective?
The sign of a thaw in one of the last vestiges of the Cold War has brought a general feeling of optimism to the region. Nonetheless, realism prevails over euphoria when it comes to the complex issue of Korean reunification.
No Southeast Asian editorials fail to mention recent U.S. Congressional hearings in Washington in which scenarios were discussed involving potential Chinese efforts to diminish the U.S. power in Asia.
Analysts in Southeast Asia also note that while the Korean Peninsula will remain a potential flash point for sometime, a Korean thaw will make other Asian problems (Taiwan, Kashmir, the Spratlys, piracy) more conspicuous.
The success of the Korean summit led some observers to question whether China and Taiwan could benefit from the example set by the two Koreas. But Beijing’s cold dismissal of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s effort to build on the momentum created by the Korean summit made the answer clear.
New developments in Asia will increase the importance of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Pyongyang’s joining of ARF under Thailand’s aegis in the forthcoming cycle of deliberations, together with a dimunition of the Korean threat, may result in ARF becoming more involved in the strategic concerns of both Northeast and Southeast Asia.
Setting the Korean issue aside, what else is gaining or losing dynamism in the Asia-Pacific region? The Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum seems to be on a waning course. The praiseworthy experiment appears to have fallen victim to faltering momentum, highly unrealistic expectations and too many members — an inherent problem in all regional groupings — which brought too many antagonistic attitudes into the fold.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for its part, is regaining strength following the economic crisis, but it also faces problems stemming from over-expansion. Greater diversity has lead to a questioning and rethinking of the group’s golden rule of nonintervention in members’ domestic affairs.
On a more positive note, we should not lose sight of an emerging alignment provisionally known as “ASEAN plus 3” — ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea. While again there exists the potential danger of overexpansion, not to mention China facing off against Japan, for the moment this East Asian community seems to reflect a commonality of interests. In the wake of the Korean summit, one also wonders whether North Korea will eventually participate in this group.
Russia, for its part, seems to have focused some of its attention eastward, although not in a spectacular way. Moscow has proposed a “Pacific Concord,” a code of conduct for the whole area, but it has yet to be accepted. It also participates regularly in ARF meetings.
Established three years ago, another grouping, “BIMST-EC,” (“Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation”) is not now widely known but it could eventually raise its profile, especially if China joins its ranks.
Given recent Asian developments and trends, it will certainly become necessary for the new occupant of the White House to rethink the United States’ policies toward Asia.
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