Indonesia's implosion and the world's reaction to the military-organized massacres of East Timor's defenseless civilians shake fundamental assumptions about Asia that will take years to examine and absorb. But three consequences are already apparent and deserve attention now:
Indonesia no longer serves as Southeast Asia's most important regional military counterweight to China. This change affects U.S. strategic thinking about the Pacific, Australia's sense of national security and a covey of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
History has not ended in Asia. In the rush to create a new El Dorado, U.S. businessmen and other prophets of globalization portrayed Asia as a huge, quickly opening market in which investment and technology formed destiny. Indonesia's still unfolding revolution illuminates the failure of such quasi-Marxist economic determinism.
Ethnic wars in Bosnia and Kosovo reshaped attitudes toward international peacekeeping. The conflict in East Timor is having a similar impact in Asia. Thailand leads in exploring a new regional approach to the once taboo subjects of intervention, sovereignty and human rights in neighboring countries.
Or, in other words: Interfet has joined Internet in catalyzing Asia's future.
Interfet is the 15-nation emergency peacekeeping force the United Nations ordered into East Timor, with Indonesian acquiescence, on Sept. 20. It has the grisly and dangerous task of protecting the East Timorese from the Indonesian military and its local militia allies until the United Nations can deploy a more permanent, nation-building force.
A decision to commit troops abroad reveals much about a nation's character, priorities and history. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told me that he recommended that France send 500 troops to Interfet "because we should have an important force that can make a difference there and not just be a symbol. This underlines our global role."
The Clinton administration seemed eager to make the opposite point. The initial U.S. contribution was limited to 200 support personnel, most of whom will stay on nearby warships.
Australia's agreement to provide 4,000 of Interfet's 7,500 troops was dictated in part by logistics, in part by Prime Minister John Howard's readiness to accept a leadership role in Asian security. Howard also assumed a responsibility for neighboring East Timor that previous Australian leaders had shamefully ignored.
But it is the Thai role in Interfet that is the most intriguing development. The Thai decision to commit 1,000 troops and assign a major general as Interfet's deputy commander departs from the region's long history of seeing, hearing and speaking no evil when it comes to neighbors' problems.
This decision also reflects a new Thai activism, voiced by Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan at the U.N. General Assembly last month. "Security is now people-related more than state-related," the U.S.-educated Thai diplomat said in a speech that echoed Britain's Tony Blair and others on humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. States can no longer expect immunity through sovereignty if they seriously mistreat their citizens, he indicated.
The Thais have also been virtually alone in Asia in publicly criticizing and challenging the murderous junta that has sealed off neighboring Myanmar (ex-Burma).
These deeds and words offer a startling contrast to the "Asian values" campaign of the chauvinistic rulers of Malaysia and Singapore, who justify their suppression of press freedom and other political rights on specious cultural and economic efficiency grounds.
"Asian values" theorists deliberately stir racist sentiment as a political tool. The demonstration effect of the Thais joining an Australian-led force is to de-emphasize race as a factor in this humanitarian operation. Thailand deserves international recognition, and gratitude, for the role it has undertaken in East Timor.
Thailand quickly adopted a new constitution and began to limit the influence of its military and of crony capitalism when the 1997 economic crisis struck Asia. While far from finished in its political and legal makeover, Bangkok now stands on the threshold of a remarkable economic recovery.
Indonesia remains mired in turmoil: The heirs of the fallen autocrat Suharto continue to protect him, his crooked associates and the military from investigation. Jakarta prolongs the agony of national collapse.
These two countries offer diverging paths that have clear lessons about the enduring importance of political leadership to offer other Asian countries, particularly China, and the world.