Southeast Asia should be reveling in peace and prosperity. Yet, anxiety is rippling through the region. As Washington cuts back its military presence in the Pacific and forges a North American trade bloc, the leaders of Southeast Asia are hotly debating whether to form an economic bloc and security alliance of their own.
America's clout already is slipping. That was the message coming from the July 19-22 meeting in Kuala Lumpur of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and attended by Secretary of State James Baker. To demonstrate their own economic might, the ministers endorsed a proposal to make ASEAN a "free-trade zone" within a decade. They also promised to study schemes for further economic integration, including a plan by Malaysian Premier Datu Seri Mahathir Mohammad, the firebrand of this new Asian self-assertiveness. He is calling for an East Asia Economic Group that excludes the U.S. It's not quite Fortress Asia, but the tone of the talks gave a U. S. observer reason to fear that this may lead to "a unified front against the U.S."
Talk of a new security alliance that may include the Soviet Union and China makes the U. S. even more jumpy. Baker assured the group that the U. S. military commitment is firm and that the Pacific is safeguarded by bilateral treaties and regional alliances. But after announcements of U. S. troop withdrawals and the closing of volcano-stricken Clark Air Base in the Philippines, the Asians are moving to fill the vacuum, amassing their own high-tech arsenals. They are worried about potential flashpoints, such as the oil-rich and heavily fortified Spratly Islands contested by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. As Southeast Asia flexes its new political muscle, Washington can no longer expect to call all the shots.