Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, are discussing the final points of an anti-terrorism agreement, which outlines closer security ties with the United States.
ASEAN foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell are expected to sign the anti-terrorism pact during the region's annual security forum this week in Brunei. ASEAN is comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The agreement will be based on a similar pact Malaysia and the United States signed in May, which focuses on coordinating law enforcement operations and sharing intelligence about al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.
The pact originally said that Washington would act in accordance with the principles of sovereign equality and territorial integrity. But at Washington's request, the wording was changed, to state that the United States "recognizes" such principles.
Indonesia and Vietnam had initially objected to the change, fearing it could leave an opening for the United States to send troops to the region.
Indonesia and Vietnam remain wary of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population, some of whom are extremely hostile to the West and the United States. Vietnam fought a bitter 10-year war with the United States, which ended in 1975 in a communist victory. But most ASEAN foreign ministers say they are confident the anti-terrorism pact will not allow any U.S. troop deployments without the approval of individual countries.
Singapore's Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar said what is most important for the region is maintaining a cohesive approach to fighting terrorism. "Whether bilateral, trilateral, whether it is an agreement with the United States, there have to be multiple fronts to combat terrorism," he said. "I think there is very little disagreement on this."
After Afghanistan, a second front in the war on terrorism opened in Southeast Asia earlier this year.
U.S. troops, invited by Washington's main ally in the region, the Philippines, began helping the Philippine military track down Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels in the south. Both countries believe the Abu Sayyaf has links to al-Qaida.
Malaysia and Singapore have also arrested and charged dozens of alleged al-Qaida-linked Muslim extremists with plotting or carrying out bomb attacks.
Twelve other nations with security interests in the region will also attend the security forum Wednesday and Thursday in Brunei. The countries, including China, Russia, India, and the two Koreas, are expected to announce steps to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering. According to a draft statement, the countries would freeze "without delay the assets of terrorists and their associates" and make public a list of the owners and amounts in the frozen accounts.