China, Russia, India counter growing US muscle in Southeast Asia.

Nuclear powers Russia, China and India want to forge strategic partnerships with Southeast Asia to counter growing US influence and assertiveness in the region, officials said Wednesday.

The three have given "strong signals" to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that they would sign up to the grouping's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), effectively a non-aggression pact among the 10 ASEAN member states.

The treaty was originally signed in 1976 by ASEAN's five founding members -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Russia, China and India are the first to offer to sign up to the pact to "demonstrate that we are benign powers and do not desire your territory," an ASEAN diplomat said

"We believe the three will sign the agreement in Bali" during the annual summit meeting of ASEAN leaders in October, the diplomat told AFP.

"This is going to be very symbolic because it was in Bali that the original regional concept of maintaining peace and security evolved," he added.

Russia will this week also sign a joint declaration on "partnership of peace, security, stability and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region" with ASEAN, an overarching cooperation framework.

The move by the three nuclear powers to forge such pacts comes at a time when the United States is stamping its influence in the region under the guise of the international fight against terrorism, analysts said.

With nudging from Washington, ASEAN foreign ministers made an unprecedented call Tuesday for the early release of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from detention by her country's military rulers.

This is payback time for Southeast Asia, which is getting enormous assistance from the United States in its uphill battle against groups linked to Osama bin laden's al-Qaeda network trying to establish a pan-Islamic state in the region, analysts said.

But some ASEAN members themselves are worried about the high-profile US influence in the region, including Indonesia, which has come under pressure from Washington for its strong-arm approach in containing a revolt in its Aceh province.

"If we put this renewed assertiveness in the context of American dominance in the international arena and its ability to impose its will through its unrivalled military capability, we can understand the worries of some ASEAN nations that this could very well turn out to be American dominance in this region too," said Andrew Tan, an analyst with the Singapore-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

"This worries Russia and China and India as well and it is not surprising that they want to sign the TAC too. It could be symbolic but this is the way of communicating a political message," Tan told AFP.

All three powers, like the United States, are ASEAN's dialogue partners.

"On ASEAN's part, they will welcome the three in signing the pact because they are seen as great powers capable of balancing the US influence to some extent," Tan added.

In the past ASEAN had expected Japan, its biggest investor, to balance the role of the United States and China, which has overlapping claims with several Southeast Asian nations on a group of islands in South China Sea.

But ASEAN's confidence waned due to Tokyo's lack of assertiveness in its foreign and defence policies and its continuing reliance on the United States, analysts said.

ASEAN officials said the grouping could not ignore the enormous economic potential of China and India as both markets and trading partners.

"On the economic front particularly, we need to diversify our risks as we cannot rely on the US alone and we need establish building blocks with all strategic players in the global scene, particularly Asia," said Sundram Pushpanathan, ASEAN's head of external relations.

ASEAN is already working on a free trade area with China, while Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has personally agreed to undertake "concrete cooperation" for its own free trade area linking the world's second most populous nation with Southeast Asia.

[Source: P. Parameswaran, AFP, Phnom Penh, 18jun03]

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