- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

BEIJING — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is urging Asian nations to form a regional security organization to address common threats, suggesting that the six-nation forum dealing with North Korea — which includes China and Russia — could be a useful starting point.

Such an organization would not come even close to NATO’s integrated political and military structures, but it would assure more effective responses to crises such as Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, Miss Rice told reporters in Beijing during a regional tour last week.

A senior State Department official said the secretary will elaborate on the concept during a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington today.

“That you’ve had no way to even have conversations about common security threats is a problem for the region, and it gets exposed when you have something like this,” Miss Rice said of the North Korean nuclear issue.

“There are highly developed security arrangements all throughout Europe — as a matter of fact, some people think too many,” Miss Rice said. “I don’t think this region is probably going to develop an organizational structure anything like what you have in Europe.”

But a more informal group, perhaps growing out of the six-party process that includes the United States, Japan and South Korea, is not only possible, but also necessary, she said. U.S. officials said Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries also would be good candidates for a security organization.

“Those mechanisms, I think, are going to need to come into being and begin to give the region a way to have this conversation,” Miss Rice said, adding that the six-party framework “is a first chance to do some of that.”

The Bush administration, which has refused to negotiate with North Korea bilaterally, proposed the six-party talks in 2003 on the grounds that it would be more difficult for Pyongyang to break an agreement that involved several countries, including its benefactor China.

“The fact that we can all talk about proliferation issues with one another, defense issues with one another — eventually, I think, more articulated versions of all of those — is something that this region has really lacked,” Miss Rice said.

Miss Rice did not say whether North Korea, the other participant in the six-party talks, would be invited. But another official familiar with interagency talks on the issue said membership could be held out as a reward to Pyongyang if it dismantles its nuclear program.

The official said the proposal was first developed four years ago under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell but sidelined by opposition from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Some officials remain wary of anything that smacks of rewarding North Korea after its Oct. 9 nuclear test.

Analysts generally agree that a regional security organization in Asia is necessary, and point to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation as a model. APEC heads of state meet each November for a high-profile summit on economic issues. This year’s meeting will be held in Vietnam.

But several diplomats and analysts expressed doubts that China in particular would sign on to a security arrangement that institutionalizes the dominance of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.

Critics of the plan note that China has refused to invite the United States to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which deals with Central Asian security issues, and has excluded the United States from joining the East Asia Economic Summit.

Many APEC members complained at the 2003 summit in Bangkok that President Bush wanted security to dominate the agenda while they preferred to talk about economics and business.

But U.S. officials said that, had there been a forum at which Asian security could be discussed, Mr. Bush would not have been accused of trying to “hijack” the APEC agenda with issues such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the Asia Society in New York, noted that Asian security also is a topic at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Forum, which takes place every summer. But, he said, ASEAN “doesn’t have the robustness required to address the region’s needs as a whole.”

Michael Pillsbury, a specialist on China, said the secretary’s proposal will challenge China’s government.

“This will fuel the debate in China between hard-liners and the moderates about whether to accept this constructive offer,” he said. “This will revive the debate over China’s refusal to join the U.S. as a responsible stakeholder.”

Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said a security organization is a good idea, “but it will have an inauspicious start if we fail utterly to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat using the same putative grouping.”

Miss Rice credited the six-party process, and China’s participation in particular, with the relative ease with which the United States negotiated a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution punishing North Korea for its nuclear test.

“Thirty years you haven’t been able to get a Security Council resolution on North Korea, and when you get one, it’s Chapter 7, it’s 15-0, and China is at the center of it,” Miss Rice said.

Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter is invoked only when the 15-member council determines that international peace and security are being threatened. The North Korea resolution imposed trade and financial sanctions related to Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction programs and banned imports and exports of illicit materials and equipment.

• Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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