Saturday, April 30, 2005

To solve Asia's crises, dialogue is crucial

South China Morning Post
Tuesday, January 21, 2003

By Frank-Jurgen Richter and Thang Nguyen

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld once rued: "Hope and fear are inseparable." But perhaps East Asia welcomed the new year with less of the former and more of the latter.

As 2002 came to an end, the region felt the uncertainty of the world economy and the potential impact of an imminent U.S. attack against Iraq. By the end of December, North Korea magnetised the world's attention with its reactivation of Yongbyon, the nuclear plant where Pyongyang is said to have produced bomb-grade plutonium. The incident indeed diverted some of Washington's focus away from Baghdad and put Seoul and Tokyo - both allies of the U.S. - on the alert.

It is tempting to ask: Who should be handling this crisis? The answer depends on who you ask. Some think the United States should be at the helm, but many call for U.S. withdrawal from the region. Thousands of South Koreans demonstrated in front of the American Embassy in Seoul on New Year's Eve against the U.S. presence in South Korea.

Even though many Asians may not feel comfortable having outsiders solve their problems, the crux of the matter is that the crisis on the Korean peninsula cannot be resolved by any nation or organisation alone. But unlike Europe and the US, Asia has no Nato.

There is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) - which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. But Asean is not a security arrangement like Nato. The ultimate goal for Asean is regional and economic integration of the 10 member countries. The Asean plus three (China, South Korea and Japan) initiative remains more or less a project to build a bigger East Asian economic bloc and to deepen regional co-operation on such issues as sea piracy and drug trafficking.

Some countries in East Asia are confronted with domestic priorities that deserve the attention of both regional leaders and the international community.

In Indonesia for example, students have been holding demonstrations in Jakarta since last week calling for the complete withdrawal of the military from Aceh - which signed a peace accord with Jakarta last month - and for a rollback in utility fees, which had skyrocketed over the past few weeks after the government halted subsidies. Most importantly, the students have called for the resignations of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice-President Hamzah Haz. They apparently have the support of some businesspeople and community groups.

One should not underestimate the impact of such demonstrations: they were among the forces that ousted both president Suharto and president Abdurrahman Wahid a few years ago.
Being the world's largest archipelago, fourth most populous country and biggest Muslim nation, Indonesia's stability and leadership are important to the region.

Southeast Asia is experiencing a leadership vacuum. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, the most senior statesman in the region, will step down in October. In Singapore, the timing of the change of leadership is unclear. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, who assumed the presidency after the ousting of Joseph Estrada in a popular revolt, recently announced she would not run in the 2004 presidential elections.

In Northeast Asia, leadership is being tested. In China, the inauguration of Vice-President Hu Jintao as Communist Party chief seems to be well-received thus far. This is the most important - and powerful - job in China, and the coming months will be critical for Mr Hu.

South Korea welcomed 2003 with the selection of president-elect Roh Moo-hyun. The unfolding crisis on the Korean peninsula will provide a difficult trial for him.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan has done rather well, considering how often the country has changed leaders in the past decade. His challenge lies in the arena of economic reforms and growth. As the world's second largest economy, Japan's success is in the interests of Asia and the larger international community.

In addition to asking who should be leading East Asia now, it is also relevant to ask: How should it be led? The answer to this question also depends on who you ask. While some think high-level meetings, the United Nations, or leadership by China, Japan and Russia should be the leading factors, others maintain that the U.S. should be involved and its forces are needed to ensure stability in the region.

Based on our experience at the World Economic Forum, the best way to deal with global and regional challenges is for leaders from all walks of life to gather and discuss the most challenging issues that confront our world - and deal with them in a hands-on manner.

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, therefore takes place at what may be a critical time for East Asia - and other regions. It is the right platform for global peace and improvement.

Frank-Jurgen Richter is director for Asia, and Thang Nguyen is regional manager for Asia, at the World Economic Forum, whose annual meeting takes place this year from January 23 to January 28.

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