Focus on terrorism
The Phuket meeting of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the security platform of the Association of South East Asian Nations, was dominated by informal discussions on terrorism, Myanmar and North Korea. Though no consensus was reached on how to deal with these problems, it provided an ideal forum for the 27 major players, especially in South, Southeast, and East Asia. With the United States and the European Union joining in the dialogue, the deliberations did acquire an inte rnational significance. India and Indonesia, recent victims of terror, made common cause and put up a strong case for concerted action to stamp out terrorism. The ARF had no hesitation in condemning terrorism and endorsing Jakarta’s appeal for increased intelligence-sharing. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna used this regional conclave to raise New Delhi’s concerns over cross-border terrorism and the need to take strong action against terrorist groups operating around the world. The ARF came out with a vision statement that called for increased cooperation to promote an effective security partnership among the participants. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took on both North Korea and Myanmar in her interactions. In a media interview in Thailand, she went as far as to call for the expulsion of Myanmar from the regional association.
Given its commitment to “constructive engagement” rather than conflict or confrontation, ASEAN was not thinking of drastic action against the military junta in Myanmar. All that the Phuket meetings did was to press for a “free, fair, and inclusive” general election in that country in 2010. Ms Clinton was forthright in demanding the immediate release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is facing another foisted case intended obviously to extend her detention. North Korea refused to return to the six-party talks on the nuclear issue. So nothing dramatic or substantial was achieved, though the forum provided an opportunity to discuss these issues extensively. As for India-ASEAN cooperation, it was decided to upgrade the Plan of Action and launch the ‘Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Shared Prosperity’ before the next summit. The meetings also focussed on the importance of transport linkages between ASEAN and India to foster regional integration. New Delhi has offered to utilise the earth station in Biak, Indonesia, for framing projects in space science for ASEAN member-states. But the South East Asian neighbours are more keen on pushing for an early conclusion of the India-ASEAN Free Trade Area agreement, now focussed on service and investment pacts — they have already dragged on for too long.