A whole new ball game for E Asia nations: Asean has started to take more responsibility for the region's post-Cold War security, writes Raymond Whitaker, Asia Editor

PARTICIPANTS in the first formal meeting to discuss east Asian security yesterday heard a proposal for volleyball matches among the troops stationed on the Spratlys by five of the six nations claiming the islands.

'We have identified this game after serious study and consultation,' said the Philippines Foreign Secretary, Roberto Romulo. 'It symbolises the teamwork and co-operation that would be required to prevent potential conflict.' Mr Romulo may have been carried away by the informal setting chosen for the inaugural meeting of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) - a family suite in a hotel - but his idea also reflected how far the region has to go in achieving collective security.

Despite some of the most intractable security issues confronting the post-Cold War world, including North Korea's nuclear programme, the south-east Asian arms race and conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, the region has no equivalents to Nato or the Council for Security and Co-operation in Europe. East Asia's free-market economies have traditionally relied on a network of biltateral agreements with the US, but since the disappearance of the Soviet threat, Washington has reduced its military presence. The ARF, set up by the six members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, is the first effort by the region itself to take more responsibility for its own security.

The 18-member forum brings Asean countries together with all the region's main economic and military powers, including China, the US, Russia, the European Union, Japan and South Korea - but not Taiwan, one of the claimants to the Spratlys, which has been kept out at Peking's insistence. Vietnam and Laos, once hostile neighbours of Asean which are now seeking membership, have also joined the ARF. Cambodia, whose instability following last year's UN-sponsored election was one of the issues discussed yesterday, is expected to be admitted to the organisation next year, but Burma's military regime is likely to remain unacceptable for the time being. North Korea was another absentee.

Yesterday's three-hour meeting was more symbolic than practical, and no attempt was made to reach concrete agreements, but Gareth Evans, the Australian Foreign Minister, said it had consisted of more than bland generalities. Specific issues had been discussed, with North Korea the main topic. The tug-of-war over the Spratlys was also covered, as well as the threats to stability posed by Cambodia and Burma.

Among confidence-building proposals which will be studied by officials are the exchange of defence white papers, a regional arms register - and Manila's volleyball plan. Still others ranged from the most basic - declaring non-use of force - to the most ambitious: formation of a regional peace- keeping force to complement UN forces. Russia, which broke into the Asian arms market last month by selling 30 MiG-29 jet fighters to Malaysia, is proposing international arms sales guidelines, evidently to ease fears of fuelling conflicts.

The optimism aroused by yesterday's gathering is likely to be eroded by national interests. China, whose military build-up has made many of its neighbours nervous, is unlikely to become too closely enmeshed in collective security. But as a New Zealand delegate commented yesterday: 'Five years ago you would have been laughed off the premises for suggesting that 18 foreign ministers would have got together in one room at all, much less discuss quite sensitive issues.'

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