New wind in Asia?

Is it me, or in a few short months has the mood in Asia changed?

Remember Sydney in early September? A bedraggled Prime Minister Abe, fresh from proclaiming a new era of cooperation among Asian democracies in India, went to Sydney for APEC, where he met with President Bush and Australia’s John Howard. It was at that meeting, days before his resignation, that Prime Minister Abe promised that Japan would not withdraw from the Indian Ocean, a promise of support for his fellow democrats.

Now, in November, the second of the three leaders at that summit has left office, this time directly at the hands of his voters in a shining example for the region of the workings of democracy. John Howard, Australia’s prime minister for eleven years, has lost to the Labour Party’s Kevin Rudd in a landslide.

With Fukuda Yasuo replacing Mr. Abe, and the Mandarin-speaking Mr. Rudd replacing Mr. Howard, the “deputy sheriff,” the “quad” may be no more. Both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Rudd seem to believe that their power is best spent promoting cooperation in Asia, not deepening security cooperation among democracies conveniently located on all sides of China.

But how to build on this happy coincidence of leaders interested in an Asia without walls, an Asia of which I saw hints at the September APEC meeting? For the moment, the Bush administration will be absent from Asia as it prepares to launch yet another initiative in pursuit of peace between Israel and Palestinians. But should this latest effort fail — as seems to be universally anticipated — perhaps the presence of Messrs. Rudd and Fukuda will present Mr. Bush with another possibility to leave some sort of positive legacy.

Asia needs an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia. China’s integration into the regional security environment has lagged behind its integration into the regional and global trading systems. Accordingly, there is a grave need for an organization that will promote military transparency, arms control, and conflict resolution in a region that combines territorial disputes and burgeoning defense budgets. Critics will no doubt argue that such an effort is futile, that China (and the PLA) cannot be trusted to participate in such an effort in good faith. Maybe, but the region’s powers should at least give Beijing the opportunity to refuse. Even US Pacific Command seems to think that efforts to cultivate more open security relations between the US and China are worthwhile.

That said, without US engagement — sustained engagement — this sort of initiative would be doomed to fail. Perhaps this is an opportunity for two US Asian allies, which have periodically chafed at their dependence on the US, to carve out new political roles in the region by pulling the US and China to the table to discuss building a new Asia-Pacific security architecture. There might never be a better opportunity to construct a durable framework for security cooperation in Asia: the US, distracted in the Middle East, is increasingly interested in regional stability and cooperation with China, at the same time that changes of government in two of its major allies in the region have brought to power prime ministers interested in better relations with Beijing.

It will take persistence from Canberra and Tokyo — and it is probably overly optimistic to expect progress before January 2009 — but now is the time to start urging the US to reengage in Asia in a big way. The more concerted the effort the better.

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