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THE ASSOCIATION OF South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has taken a constructive step in inviting Pakistan to join its regional security forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). From the time India became a full dialogue partner in 1996, Pakistan has been staking its claim to enter the ARF. Some of its friends in that region endorsed that move in the context of the friction in South Asia. But owing to internal problems in Pakistan and owing to the fact that New Delhi was not too keen on Islamabad joining this security-related forum, ASEAN put it on hold. Now that the two South Asian neighbours are ready to begin a fresh round of engagement and a comprehensive dialogue, ASEAN had got India's nod to let Pakistan join the ARF. From the Southeast Asian viewpoint, getting both India and Pakistan into the forum is significant because both of them now claim nuclear capability and peace in South Asia is a pre-requisite for the revival of fortunes and the strengthening of stability in neighbouring Southeast Asia. At last week's ARF meeting, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh was the first to welcome his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri, to the structured, but informal consultations with ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners.

Equally significant is the fact that Pakistan is not yet a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, although it became a sectoral dialogue partner along with India in 1992. When India was elevated to full partner status in 1996, Pakistan was not granted the same status. Though Islamabad may yet become a dialogue partner in due course, its entry into the ARF without that status carries its own message. The ARF is the security platform of ASEAN, where the Foreign Ministers of member states as well as dialogue partners — who range from the U.S. and the European Union to China and Australia — participate. Economic cooperation between ASEAN and Pakistan is yet to be developed in an earnest way and this perhaps explains why Islamabad has not yet become a dialogue partner. But its engagement in the annual security dialogue assumes importance because ASEAN would like to ensure that tensions in nuclear weaponised South Asia do not go out of hand and, in particular, do not affect Southeast Asia.

It is ASEAN's belief that sustained economic growth and political stability in the region cannot be achieved without ensuring peace and constructive engagement. The ARF was created to promote a continuing dialogue on security related issues, not just in the Asia Pacific region, but elsewhere in the world. ASEAN has identified some of the hot spots in the region, which include the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, southern Philippines, parts of Indonesia, and South Asia. West Asia too has great significance because of the high dependence on that region for oil. ASEAN is convinced that a confrontation can be averted through a process of continuing dialogue, in which parties to a potential conflict are also engaged. In this specific case, Pakistan's entry into the ARF provides an additional opportunity for the two South Asian neighbours to engage informally in consultations. Pakistan has also given an undertaking to ASEAN that it will refrain from raising bilateral issues in the ARF, without ruling out the possibility of the forum itself raising some of the explosive issues on the horizon. This latest move seems to be part of an emerging canvas of confidence building between the two neighbours and must be encouraged.

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