Shadow of China falls on Asia's new forum

Hidden agenda will dominate diverse group's deliberations, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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Jakarta - Diplomacy has always been a minefield of baffling acronyms and, as the Cold War has given way to the new world order, so bureaucrats and heads of state have met the challenge with a new set of opaque abbreviations. In the old days, global security revolved on a transatlantic axis and the terrifying notion of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the focus of global concern has moved east, to the realm of the CIS, Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations), and Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-Operation). This week, hold your breath for yet another international acronym - ARF, the Asean Regional Forum.

The ARF, which convenes in Jakarta this morning, first met three years ago, but neither of its previous meetings has addressed such a wide range of tensions and preoccupations. Ministers from 18 countries and the European Union will be represented at today's meetings. The geographical, political and economic disparities between the delegates - from Russia and the United States to Brunei and Laos - are enormous. At the formal ministerial meeting and the lower-level bilaterals there will be discussion of every issue of security in the world today.

While the Europeans are briefing their Asian counterparts on events in Bosnia, Japan, the US and South Korea will be in a huddle about the future of North Korea. Malaysia and Canada will co-chair an inter-sessional meeting on peace-keeping operations. The Singaporeans and Americans will put forward proposals on international search-and-rescue operations. Russia will be sharing its thoughts on the Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

And at the back of everyone's minds, casting a shadow over almost every discussion, will be the future of the region's pivotal military power: China.

The ARF has no formal agenda. Certain participants, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, take pride in painting this as a peculiarly "Asian attitude", in contrast to the style supposedly favoured by the West. But everyone knows certain key subjects are going to crop up - and the group is likely to divide along polarised East-West lines.

The most obvious example is Burma. The Rangoon junta will not be taking part in ARF but it was welcomed on Saturday as an observer member of Asean, which held its annual meeting over the weekend. The non-Asian delegates in Jakarta, which include Australia, New Zealand and Canada and the Americans and Europeans, have taken umbrage at this, particularly since last month, when Leo Nichols, an honorary consul for several Scandinavian countries, died in custody in Rangoon. Their anger was not soothed yesterday by the Burmese Foreign Minister, Ohn Gyaw, who said Mr Nichols had died after "eating something which was not compatible with his health".

Several other of ARF's Asian members have disturbing human-rights records - notably China and the host, Indonesia, which this month marked the 20th anniversary of its savage annexation of East Timor. Despite encouragement from the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Europeans seem to be watering down their calls for an economic boycott of Burma. But there are already mutterings that the they are missing the point, and that the EU in ARF is an acronym too far.

Ohn Gyaw confirmed that his military government keeps records on foreign journalists and denies them visas if their reports reflect badly on the regime, AP reports.

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