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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Recent days have seen the emergence of a number of cliches in the press with reference to policies and trends in Asia and particularly to ASEAN. Among the most common are the following:

* The new administration in Washington will probably treat China in a more antagonistic manner, given U.S. President George W. Bush’s earlier statement about China being a “strategic competitor” and not a “partner” of the United States. Therefore, say pundits, tensions may loom on the horizon.

* ASEAN is slipping more and more into irrelevance as the 30-year-old organization persists in clinging to the outdated notion of noninterference in members’ domestic affairs.

The possibility that these views will be proven correct cannot be dismissed. But a more cautious and balanced look at Asia will reveal the folly of being tempted by fashionable slogans and easy assumptions.

In his Jan. 8 article, “Tests loom for U.S.-China ties,” strategic analyst Ralph Cossa demonstrated that U.S. policy toward China has remain largely unchanged under both Republican and Democratic administrations over the years. Other analysts also believe the U.S.-China relationship will experience gradual evolution rather than radical change, as long as Beijing does not undertake any dramatic policy shifts.

It would be wise to wait and see how the Republican Party’s election rhetoric translates into policy now that Bush has taken power. The possibility also exists that Beijing may ultimately feel more comfortable with a more stern, but at the same time clearer and more consistent U.S. policy rather than former President Bill Clinton’s China policy, which was warm overall but marked by perplexing zigzags.

As has been the case, the catalyst will be the delicate balancing act among Japan, China and the United States. Skillful acrobatics here (and not at the expense of Japan, as was the case in the Clinton administration) will prove beneficial to all the big players in East Asia. Later, and from a broader Asian perspective, the new president will have to adjust his predecessor’s Sino-centric Asian policy. This must be done extremely carefully, however, taking into account the legitimate concerns of Southeast Asian nations regarding the sole superpower’s handling of its relationship with China as any potential dislocations will have unavoidable, disturbing repercussions in their back yards. It is also hoped that India will be included in Bush’s foreign affairs agenda.

Emphasis on ASEAN’s abandonment of its famous “consensus” and “nonintervention” principle cannot be automatically construed as a cure-all formula capable of resuscitating a “moribund” organization. (After all, the present image of ASEAN has more to do with the economic crisis of 1997 than with this principle.) Certainly, conditions change and the 1967 regional recipes enshrined as mantras in ASEAN’s core structure and philosophy cannot necessarily address the geopolitical landscape of the new millennium. ASEAN, like similar organizations and institutions in general, has to possess and display the virtue of adaptability if it is to survive and remain relevant. But ASEAN has to find its new path through soul-searching rather than a mechanical borrowing of alien formulas.

In the final analysis, ASEAN cannot but reflect the synthesis of its components. Considering that Indonesia is the organization’s most important member and accounts for two-fifths of its population, it is natural that its disarray is causing painful trauma. But far from taking that as a doomsday signal, we should perhaps consider it akin to a difficult birth that leads to greater democracy.

From the perspective of individual ASEAN members, the recent election in Thailand, despite many shortcomings and apprehensions, is a most promising landmark, proving that the democratic process there is thriving and irreversible. Even in the Philippines, where the picture is grim in so many ways, procedural democratic structures appear to be withstanding the impact of overwhelming events.

Without intending to reopen the endless discussion on “Asian values,” I would stress the necessity of ASEAN finding its own ways to face new challenges. ASEAN remains at the forefront of the ASEAN Regional Forum strategic mechanism and it is also playing its part well in the new, experimental “ASEAN plus Three” framework. More steps are needed and it is hoped that they will be taken gradually.

The extremely fragile breakthrough of the “Razali initiative” in Myanmar points again to the need for deep inter-ASEAN effort and engagement. Critics are voicing strong reservations, but where so many other “sticks” have proven inefficient, this unfolding development, despite all its limitations, is the only encouraging sign on the path of reconciliation.

In a most complex geopolitical environment, we should avoid stereotypes. Living in “very interesting times,” as the Chinese expression goes, we should aim at dispassionate analysis and inclusive judgment. Even then, we may be overcome by surprising developments, but it is paramount that our lenses be omnidirectional and unbiased.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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