The decision by Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, to skip the A.S.E.A.N. Regional Forum - the annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations - drew criticism from the region. It was, according to Malaysia's foreign minister, “a very uneasy signal”.
The extent of U.S. commitment to Asia in fact has little to do with attendance at the A.S.E.A.N. Regional Forum, a gathering that often gains attention for the antics of ministers at the closing variety show. The real question behind the reaction to Dr. Rice’s travel plans is whether the Bush Administration is serious about recent suggestions of a new approach to the Asian region.
Unlike Europe, Asia has no tradition of multilateralism to advance democracy and human rights. Asia's regional organisations do not make democracy a priority, or even a criterion for membership. They emphasise consensus, lack enforcement mechanisms, and are often criticised as ineffective.
Washington, which for decades has dominated Asian security affairs, has not only accepted this state of affairs, it is largely responsible for it. While the N.A.T.O. alliance was being built in Europe, Washington pursued discrete, bilateral relationships and alliances in Asia. An exception, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, founded as an anti-communist bulwark, was disbanded amid disharmony among members and lack of US commitment. The record of S.E.A.T.O. and other regional organisations seemed to confirm the widely held belief that Asia was too diverse and too deeply rent by historical enmities to sustain the kind of structures adopted in Europe.
For a time, perhaps that was so. Strangely, however, the notion of a region unsuited to co-operation persisted even after a wave of democratisation including the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. America’s embrace of democratic multilateralism would break with the past, it would also bring the Bush Administration's policy there into line with its defining philosophy: putting democracy and the character of states at the heart of its foreign policy.
Before the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001, the Bush Administration seemed to be planning just such an approach. During his election campaign, George W. Bush said the US should “work toward the day when the fellowship of free Pacific nations is as strong and united as our Atlantic partnership”, an unmistakeable reference to N.A.T.O.. After September 11, however, everything changed. While adopting an ambitious programme for democracy in the Middle East, Mr. Bush struck a different note on Asia, heavily influenced, perhaps, by China's rise. China was no longer “a strategic competitor” but a partner in the war on terrorism and the challenge of dealing with North Korea. China's people, he said, would only “eventually” demand democracy. The “pacific community of democracies” remained a vision.
Until now. Visiting Tokyo last March, Dr. Rice referred to an existing “Pacific community of democracies” and praised a “core group”, including Japan, Australia, India, and the US, for a quick and generous response to the tsunamis. The following month, Dr. Rice said “the democratic character of states must become the cornerstone of a new, principled multilateralism”.
But how would such multilateralism work in Asia? Contrary to conventional thinking, Asia's diversity, historical grievances and contemporary challenges reinforce rather than undermine the need for a regional institution uniting democracies. Consider Japan. Membership in such a regional institution could help shape its evolution into a “normal” power and provide its leaders an incentive for taking full responsibility for its wartime guilt. South Korea, which has come under Beijing’s sway, could be reminded of broader, regional obligations, much as West Germany was reminded of its responsibilities in the Atlantic alliance even as it felt the need to reach out to the East.
An Asian organisation of democracies could also attract countries in democratic transition, just as N.A.T.O. and the European Union did; and it could help others, Thailand for example, resist backsliding. Finally, European participation in such an organisation could help manage transatlantic disagreements over China, such as the row over the E.U. arms embargo on Beijing.
China, of course, will react harshly. Unfortunately, neither the US nor its allies can assure China's development will be responsible and democratic. For now, China’s record is clear: resisting political reform at home while obstructing democratic ideals and objectives abroad, not only in Asia, but as far afield as Sudan and Iran. The U.S. and its allies should remember Europe’s example. Democratic multilateralism would provide a positive incentive to China, and bolster the regime's would-be reformers.
As Dr. Rice’s remarks indicate, the U.S. and its allies are already moving toward democratic co-operation. In addition to the tsunami “core group,” the U.S., Australia, and Japan have upgraded security consultations, and Japan and the U.S. have declared Taiwan a mutual security concern. It remains to be seen if Washington is serious about a new approach to Asian regional co-operation. Perhaps a sign would be if the Bush Administration tries to enlist allies in a democratic project for Asia just as successful as the one that helped Europe rebuild its institutions and enhance democracy.