HONOLULU — Multilateral dialogue seems to be taking on new energy in Asia. Not since 1993 — when foreign ministers attending the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference held a separate breakfast session to discuss security issues and decided to establish the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum — has there been such a flurry of activity.

Four new high-level Asian multilateral forums have been established in the past few months, even as existing organizations continue to thrive. The ninth ARF meeting convened in Brunei this week, with APEC leaders scheduled to assemble once again in October.

* Boao Forum for ASIA. In April, the first annual BFA meeting took place in Boao, China. Luminaries included Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hang Don. The BFA is aimed at strengthening economic exchanges and cooperation within the region.

Beijing has high hopes that this forum will become an Asian version of the influential annual Davos World Economic Forum. Whether sustained interest will be generated remains a question, however, given the complaints that this “nongovernmental” forum seemed to closely follow an official Chinese script.

* Singapore Shangri-La Dialogue. Another quasi-official gathering, this time involving security dialogue, took place in late May. Senior defense officials in attendance at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue (after the hotel in which it was held) included defense ministers from Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore, as well as U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. This unofficial “defense summit” allowed defense officials to meet “privately and in confidence, bilaterally and multilaterally, without the obligation to produce a formal statement or communique.”

At the defense ministers’ request, the Shangri-La Dialogue will be made an annual event.

While the meeting was unique, senior defense officials have for several years participated in ARF, although the senior representative is the foreign minister. Security issues are the focus of ARF discussions, but some key issues have been left off the table or dealt with only tangentially. It remains to be seen whether regional defense establishments will see the Shangri-La Dialogue as a useful complement to ARF or as a preferred alternative. At a minimum, it should put pressure on the foreign ministers to ensure that ARF dialogue becomes more relevant.

* CICA. Another new official multilateral forum involving selected East Asian states has been formed in Central Asia through the initiative of President Nazarbayev of Kazakstan. The first Conference on Interactions and Confidence-building measures in Asia summit brought heads of state from China, Mongolia and Russia together with counterparts from 13 other Central, South and Southwest Asian states.

CICA’s main objective is “to enhance cooperation through elaborating multilateral approaches toward promoting peace, security and stability in Asia.” Other objectives include increased trade and economic cooperation and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Summits are to take place every four years, with foreign ministers meeting every two years; working groups will gather annually. The fact that summits will occur only once every four years may keep Russia and China (among others) interested in supporting this Central Asian initiative, if for no other reason than to maintain their own influence in this buffer region.

* Asia Cooperation Dialogue. The Thai-initiated ACD added yet another definition of “Asia” to the mix, involving ministers from nine of the 10 ASEAN states (all but Myanmar), ASEAN’s Plus Three partners (China, Japan and South Korea), three South Asia states (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) and, inexplicably, Bahrain and Qatar. It was initially supposed to be an informal gathering of foreign ministers but was later opened to ministers in general after several foreign ministers were unable (or unwilling) to attend. Discussions focused on economic, social and cultural issues rather than political or security concerns. While Thaksin proclaimed the meeting an “historic Asian event” marking the “beginning of a new chapter in world history,” critics have been less enthusiastic, with one former Thai diplomat describing it as “ADC” (Asia diplomatic confusion) rather than ACD.

No one seemed to view this initiative as a potential threat to ARF, even though the ministers agreed to meet again in Thailand next year.

* ANEAN? One formulation still not being tried is an Association of Northeast Asian Nations, despite this being the region where some of East Asia’s most pressing challenges reside. While creating such a forum may be difficult today, all the Northeast Asian states (including the United States and Canada, if one stretches the definition) take part in ARF. Perhaps a separate breakfast meeting of these ministers could help sow the seeds for Northeast Asian cooperation. Expanding the current “Plus Three” grouping may be another way to achieve this goal — the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea and China are expected to hold a trilateral session along ARF sidelines in Brunei.

* Shanghai Cooperation Organization. One common element in the above forums is China. Beijing has become a big believer in multilateralism, playing the lead role in the BFA and a central role in CICA, and sending its foreign minister to the ADC and a two-star general to the Shangri-La gathering. China also remains a driving force behind the SCO, which links China and Russia with four of their Central Asian neighbors (Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). Several ministerial-level SCO meetings have already taken place this year, culminating in a Summit Meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia in June, where the six heads of state signed a charter, giving the SCO formal legal status. They also set up a joint regional antiterrorism agency.

To its credit, the SCO had already been focusing on antiterrorism before last Sept. 11. At that time it was also touted as a check against “unipolar tendencies,” with SCO pronouncements strongly condemning missile defense and supporting the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. While the SCO was “not aimed at any third country,” it was not too difficult to discern a growing anti-U.S. bias. Those themes are now being played down, with Putin stating that others, including the U.S., are now welcome to join the SCO.

None of these new initiatives presently challenge ARF or APEC, but will hopefully put pressure on them to be more forward thinking and aggressive in addressing the region’s security and economic challenges. Senior leaders will find it difficult to attach equal priority to this ever-growing list of dialogue opportunities and will likely concentrate on those that promise to be the most productive and responsive.

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