Asia's main security gathering, which convened in Laos yesterday, has a gaping hole because it does not include Taiwan, one of the region's most worrying flashpoints, analysts said.
The 25-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) covers virtually every country in East Asia, including North Korea and Myanmar, but even Asia's pariah states have what Taiwan lacks -- a level of regional diplomatic recognition.
The fact that none of the 25 participants in the ARF consider Taiwan an independent country means membership for Taipei is "just not going to happen," according to Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
"The ASEAN Regional Forum is where nations, sovereign governments get together so Taiwan obviously wouldn't qualify," Downer said yesterday.
Only 26 countries recognize Taiwan, and as a result Taipei is excluded from many organizations for which sovereign statehood is a requirement.
`UP TO CHINA'
"I don't see Taiwan being as a separate country in the ARF in the foreseeable future," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a briefing in Laos.
"I mean it's not for me to say. It's for China to say," he said.
At a security forum such as the ARF, this is particularly unfortunate given Taiwan's crucial position in Asia's complex strategic geography, according to Dennis Hickey, a political scientist at Missouri State University.
"In order for any multilateral security forum to even hope to operate effectively in this region, it must include all parties to the major disputes -- including Taiwan," he said.
The situation in the Taiwan Strait is so unpredictable that it may actually be more sensitive than the Korean Peninsula, Hickey said.
The Chinese military has deployed about 700 missiles targeted at Taiwan and has repeatedly threatened to invade if Taipei formalizes its independence.
"What is most worrisome for the international community is that China has been continuously upgrading the quality and quantity of its strategic guided-missile unit," President Chen Shui-bian (
"The expansion of China's military ambition and capabilities constitutes a direct threat to democratic Taiwan, and more importantly, a potential danger to the security and peace of the Asia-Pacific region, and even of the world as a whole," he said.
The ARF could conceivably operate as a platform for states to work out differences such as this peacefully, according to Hickey.
"Certainly in the interest of ensuring stability and prosperity in the region, a formula may be found whereby both China and Taiwan can participate in a regional security forum like ARF," he said.
But for the time being, it appears the ARF will just have to accept not having Taiwan among its ranks.
The intensity of Chinese emotions on the issue could make it too sensitive for the ARF to handle, said Lee Wei-chin, an expert on Taiwan's security at North Carolina's Wake Forest University.
"Of course, the exclusion of Taiwan will not make any security forum in Asia complete," he said.
"However, under China's pressure, ARF members might feel that they would not be able to contribute a lot to the resolution of the Taiwan issue," Lee said.
A separate security setting, involving the US and Japan but excluding Southeast Asia, would be a better forum for discussions about Taiwan, he said.
The core of ARF are the 10 members of ASEAN: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Other members include Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea the US, and, as of yesterday, East Timor.
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