Asia’s Leadership Gap

SINGAPORE – This week, ten foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting in Hanoi. When their initial gathering ends, they will host their counterparts from across the region, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ASEAN meetings are sometimes criticized as “talking shops,” but this time dialogue and strategic leadership are needed immensely.

Ironically, the two leaders who most emphasized the need for leadership in Asia and across the Pacific recently left office. Japan’s former Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and Australia’s former premier, Kevin Rudd, both championed regionalism from early in their short time in office. But, though they are gone, the issue of regional leadership remains. Indeed, it is growing more important by the day.

The security issues facing the region, from the Korean peninsula to the outcome of the upcoming elections in Myanmar (Burma) this autumn, have grown more pressing – perhaps all the more so in view of reports that North Korea is assisting Myanmar’s ruling generals to develop nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the role and attitude of a rising China must be assessed on a regional basis, particularly given that the long-standing dispute over islets in the South China Sea may be entering a new phase. Recent Chinese statements declare the islands a “core interest,” terms usually reserved for Taiwan and Tibet.

All of these issues test the region’s ability to manage peace and mitigate tensions between its main powers – and thus underscore the concern that Hatoyama and Rudd raised. Hatoyama called for an East Asian Community, emphasizing ties with China and South Korea while questioning the continuing presence of US military bases on the island of Okinawa, the issue that eventually triggered his resignation. Rudd, by contrast, raised the idea of an Asia/Pacific Community with strong ties to the US.