U.S. and ASEAN officials wrapped up talks in Washington this week that took on added importance as Washington seeks to solidify support for the war against terrorism.
The annual talks usually cover a range of political, trade, and security issues, but this time there was a much sharper focus in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the war in Afghanistan.
The discussions were held behind closed doors, but a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the one day session made clear that events since September 11 dominated the meeting.
The statement quoted Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, James Kelly, as saying the United States and ASEAN now share one more bond, counter-terrorism. The statement went out of its way to emphasize that U.S. operations in Afghanistan were directed against the al-Qaida terrorist organization and its Taleban supporters, not against Islam.
Diplomats said this was an effort to address concerns of several ASEAN governments, with sizable Muslim populations, that U.S. actions in Afghanistan are still perceived as directed against Islam.
Among ASEAN members, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population. The group's other members include Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The statement says the United States welcomes ASEAN resolve at preventing, suppressing and eradicating terrorism. Washington also welcomes offers by several ASEAN countries help with peacekeeping and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Briefing foreign journalists recently, Assistant Secretary Kelly was asked if the United States and ASEAN have a joint plan to seek and destroy terrorist cells in ASEAN countries and freeze their assets. He said no such plan exists, but said the issue of terrorism will, from now on, be a top agenda item of all future meetings. "There is no question that the ASEAN dialogue, as with all dialogues nowadays with the American government, that the global effort against terrorism is going to be front and center in the topics," he said.
However, the United States has been consulting very closely with all members of ASEAN on anti-terrorism matters, and security at U.S. embassies and other facilities in ASEAN capitals has been stepped up.
In recent talks at the White House, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and President Bush discussed Manila's battle against terrorist groups. Assistant Secretary Kelly said the Bush administration is seeking an increase in aid to help Manila in that effort. "There are some increases in the appropriation we're looking for from Congress now, to a total of about $19 million, which is not enough really to buy much of anything. It is intended, however, to help the Philippine armed forces in terms of maintaining and keeping up some of the equipment they have, particularly in terms of airlift and the ability to move their boats around," Mr. Kelly said.
Assistant Secretary of State Kelly said the Bush administration believes the U.S. - Indonesian military relationship needs to be rebuilt. He said the Indonesian military has been, in his words, part of the problem in Indonesia in the past but should be part of the solution in the future.