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New Threats for Old
Today's dangers — drugs, crime, terror — demand cooperation

Japan Must Elect Its Premier

It's the best way to revitalize the leadership

Which is the bigger threat — an invading army or a drug syndicate? Judging from a recent meeting of ASEAN army commanders at the Thai beach resort of Cha-am, heroin and ecstasy are more fearsome these days than howitzers and infantry. The Nov. 21-23 discussions, which will now be held every two years, focused not on decades-old security problems like border disputes and armed incursions, but on new threats from international crime syndicates and narcotics traffickers. Army chiefs from seven ASEAN members and deputy commanders from Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar worked on a draft agreement, due to be finished in January, to fight organized crime.

No, the old worries about military conflict haven't disappeared — just look at the rich business that merchants of tanks, jet fighters, ships and subs continue to do in Asia. But full-scale war and even low-level conflicts seem less likely these days, while criminal activities, from smuggling contraband and illegal immigrants to marine piracy and hostage-taking, have escalated. This year's harrowing security nightmare for Kuala Lumpur and Manila was the kidnapping of tourists from East Malaysia's Sipadan resort by the Philippine separatist group Abu Sayyaf. That terrorist act proved more effective in thwarting the Philippine military than any battlefield campaign by the Muslim rebels.

Clearly, close cooperation among Asian countries is indispensable in fighting the "new security" threats of cross-border crime and terrorism. But longstanding "old security" problems and tensions among nations get in the way of them joining forces. Take Thailand and Myanmar. The Royal Thai Army has singled out narcotics as the pre-eminent national security threat, particularly heroin and methamphetamines from Myanmar flooding across the border. But due to decades of rivalry and distrust between the two countries, many Myanmar generals seem content to let the drugs flow as a kind of stick with which to beat Thailand. Meanwhile, Bangkok has reportedly encouraged the anti-Yangon Shan State Army to mount raids on narcotics factories in Myanmar. There have even been suggestions of possibly launching air strikes across the border.

It's much the same story in the waters between southern Philippines and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Manila's past claim on Sabah, though dormant for at least two decades now, still limits cooperation between Malaysian and Philippine armed forces. So do the conflicting claims over various islands and shoals in the Spratlys. Further south, Australia has encountered some difficulty getting help from Indonesia to interdict the smuggling of migrants through the archipelago into the southern continent. Some Jakarta officials and military brass seem to see the illegal immigrant flow as a way of punishing Canberra for sending its troops to lead the U.N. force that secured East Timor after the half-island voted for independence from Indonesia in August 1999.

Regional security watchers are hoping that conferences like the top-brass gathering in Cha-am in November and the May 2000 meeting of ASEAN intelligence chiefs will help boost "new-security" collaboration. Ultimately, Asian governments need to put solid political will and a new defense mindset behind the drive for cooperation. Besides fighting the new threats, working together will also, as a bonus, help improve the atmosphere for settling traditional security strains.

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Looking Back:
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The Bottom Line: Asiaweek's ranking of world economies

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