- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has boosted counterterrorism and intelligence links since the September 11 attacks, but the 10-nation bloc has no plans to transform itself into a military alliance, ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino Jr. said yesterday.
U.S. troops are assisting the Philippines in a campaign against Islamic rebel groups, and Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have arrested dozens of militants with suspected links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. But Mr. Severino, meeting with reporters yesterday during a Washington visit, rejected the idea that Southeast Asia was destined to become the "second front" in the U.S.-led war on global terrorism.
"The kind of Islam practiced in Southeast Asia is quite different from the stricter kind of Islam seen in the Middle East," Mr. Severino said. "Our two biggest Muslim members, Indonesia and Malaysia, have taken a strong stand against Islamic extremism, and were doing so long before September 11.
"I think this talk of ASEAN as a haven for terrorists is really out of place," he said. "People have become more conscious of our efforts against terrorism because our own countries have been making arrests."
Still fundamentally an economic bloc, ASEAN clearly has boosted its security profile since the terror attacks in the United States, focusing on joint law enforcement, intelligence sharing and financial policing of terrorist networks.
ASEAN members, which also include Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, in April adopted a work plan to fight transnational crime, with an emphasis on combating regional and international terrorist networks.
In November, defense ministers from the ASEAN countries met for only the second time. Philippines army spokesman Lt. Col. Jose Mabanta told journalists at the Manila meeting he could imagine a joint ASEAN army someday.
But Mr. Severino said ASEAN members were looking "to cooperate in practical terms," not build an Asian NATO.
"A military structure is not in the works," he said.
He said the Bush administration has made a conscious effort to boost the profile of ASEAN, dealing directly with the alliance instead of with individual countries in several formats.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick traveled to Bangkok in April for the first formal trade talks between the United States and ASEAN in a decade, although little immediate progress was made on a planned free-trade area.
With 500 million people, ASEAN ranks as America's fifth-largest trading partner, after Canada, the European Union, Mexico and Japan, with annual two-way trade now at $120 billion.
But while praising the United States' generally open markets and the Bush administration's support of free trade, Mr. Severino said recent U.S. moves seen as protecting domestic interests such as steel makers and farmers had damaged ASEAN's own campaign for freer internal markets.
"My concern is that our own protectionist advocates back home cite the U.S. actions as examples of what they want," he said. "They say, 'If even the U.S. goes in for protectionism, why can't we?'"
Ernest Z. Bower, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, said the U.S. trade moves "really wing your credibility" when U.S. business leaders push for Southeast Asian countries to open their markets to American exports.

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