CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Analysts tend to classify U.S. policies toward Asia — and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in particular — according to two irreconcilable stereotypes: the “unchangeable pattern,” in which administrations come and go while fundamental American perceptions remain the same; and the “presidential pattern,” in which related policies are personally shaped by each president and his inner team.

While both patterns have advantageous elements, it would be misleading to abide by one to the total exclusion of the other. The benign neglect of Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the 1997 financial disaster could hardly be ascribed to unalterable fundamentals that transcended the options for a U.S. administration. In fact, it was the result of an unfortunate decision by the Clinton administration.

A similar point could be made with regard to America’s so-called sidelining of Japan in the late 1990s — while it pursued a more intense pro-China policy.

There are of course risks in focusing on specific presidential initiatives and assuming that they took place on a personal whim and in a vacuum of long-term national interests. It would therefore seem preferable and closer to view the real pattern as one that yields to general American interests in Asia with due allowances for the inevitable — and often beneficial — differences in style and emphasis as one chief of the Oval Office succeeds another.

Washington has looked at the ASEAN region in a new light since 9/11. To many observers, the Bush administration is literally lifting the curtain to a second antiterror theater in the area. If such interest draws legitimacy only from American concerns about al-Qaeda, it will provide a monodimensional — and thus a distorted — view of the situation on the ground. A parallel effort to understand and analyze local grievances and aspirations in general would guarantee the proper balance so that relevant issues are tackled comprehensively and efficiently.

Apart from the highly publicized case of the Philippines, it seems that some positive results have been registered with regard to Indonesia and Malaysia. Relations with these two countries are now at a higher level than they were a few years ago, as Washington discovers that it can do meaningful business with leaders like Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Trying to intensify dialogue with the moderate voices of Islam is the most promising recipe for minimizing the threats stemming from the more radical and fanatical elements. But, again, support should not be filtered exclusively through antiterror concerns.

It is natural for Washington to pursue specific agendas with ASEAN countries on a bilateral level. This is a fact of international relations in general as all the players vie for the attention of the world’s only superpower. At the same time, though, it is essential to pursue a second track, the regional one, whereby ASEAN is viewed as a grouping as much as an institution. ASEAN has well-justified regional sensibilities, which, by the way, are also common to other regional groupings. It is not only a matter of prestige but also of substance and the functional development of relations when, for example, the Japanese foreign minister addresses European Union envoys as a group, or a U.S. State Department leader similarly meets with Latin American ambassadors.

In this context, Colin Powell’s meeting in Washington some time ago with ASEAN envoys as a group was the first such initiative by a U.S. secretary of state. The reported response by ASEAN secretary general R. Severino was appropriate: ” I detect a new readiness by the Bush administration to deal with ASEAN as a group. This helps ASEAN cohesion and helps ASEAN-U.S. relations.”

Along the same lines, ASEAN and Washington issued a joint declaration pledging cooperation on terrorism at a recent meeting in Brunei. Although the focus again was on our calamitous times, it was understandable and desirable that both sides came up with some shared ideas on how to shield their respective societies from new types of threats. Thus the joint effort assumed considerable symbolic meaning.

Another recent U.S.-ASEAN meeting should not go unnoticed: that of the U.S. Trade Representative with ASEAN trade officials to discuss — in addition to trade issues — AIDS, drugs, intellectual property protection etc. This shows the potential of broadening the agenda while maintaining the format. There are plenty of issues of mutual concern between the U.S. superpower and a moderate grouping that represents half a billion people.

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