Just as anxiety over Asia's financial instability and its spillover effect on the world economy has eased, diplomatic and military conflicts have reemerged as this region's prime threat to global security.
Security matters topped the agenda as foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered this weekend in Singapore. The association said a flare-up in China-Taiwan relations now threatens "regional peace and stability and prospects for economic recovery."
China, the region's dominant power, this week ominously threatened to use military force against any separatist movement in Taiwan, a response to comments by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. President Clinton quickly moved to calm Beijing, canceling a military mission to Taiwan and dispatching top diplomats to Beijing and Taipei. U.S. relations with China remain icy following the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade May 7.
In another regional hot spot, Clinton interceded personally in the recent clash between India and Pakistan. Their shelling in the mountains of disputed Kashmir raised the specter of another all-out war between the long-time antagonists, who both tested nuclear devices last year. Clinton met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on July 4 and phoned Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee this week to try to ease the situation. Clinton also promised to visit the region soon.
Far to the south, Indonesians have been fighting in the streets of East Timor over a planned referendum on independence, and conflict persists in other separatist areas of the archipelago.
To round out the uneasy summer of '99, North Korea has cemented its place as East Asia's neighborhood thug, provoking a naval firefight with South Korea last month in the two nations' first sea skirmish since the Korean War more than 40 years ago. The United States sent warships and planes to the area to monitor those troubled waters. American air and sea power remains beefed up there as North Korea threatens to test a powerful ballistic missile, despite stern warnings from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
"It's no longer, 'It's the economy, stupid,' " said Sadaaki Numata, spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. "There is renewed interest in the global strategic issues that affect this part of the world."
Two years ago this month, Thailand's currency, the baht, collapsed and set off the Asian financial crisis. As economies crashed from Indonesia to South Korea, Asia suddenly seemed like an anchor that could drag down the world economy.
Now, the worst of the economic crisis seems to have passed. The worry about whether stock markets are falling in Tokyo or Seoul has been overtaken by concern about whether missiles will start falling in the Sea of Japan or the Taiwan Strait.
Tomohisa Sakanaka, a defense analyst in Tokyo, noted that in the past two years, "The short-term preoccupation with the economic problems led people to neglect the long-term security issues."
In a region where the United States has fought three wars this century, and where it still has 100,000 troops, rising military tensions are not taken lightly.
"History is not over, certainly not in Asia," said one U.S. official in the region.
For the past two years, most American officials visiting Asia stressed economic issues. Former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin became a household name in Japan for his tough criticism of the way it handled its economy. But it is Defense Secretary William S. Cohen who will visit Tokyo and Seoul in the coming weeks to try to calm regional jitters.
The shift toward security issues can be seen at the White House, where President Clinton's most recent Asian visitors have been South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who came to talk about North Korea, and Pakistan's Sharif, who came to talk about Kashmir.
The renewed emphasis on security has added pressure to already strained U.S. relations with Beijing. China is deeply suspicious of expanding U.S.-Japan military ties, fearing that the alliance could be used to help defend Taiwan in the event of an armed conflict with China.
In a telephone call with Clinton this week, Chinese President Jiang Zemin reiterated that China will consider using force if Taiwan seeks outright independence. Clinton responded by reaffirming Washington's support for the "one China" policy espoused by Beijing.
"This is something that we don't want to see escalate," Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday.
Seoul and Washington, close allies, are finding it increasingly difficult to coordinate North Korea policy as North Korea becomes more provocative. Congress appears to be moving toward a harder line with the Stalinist North while South Korea steadfastly adheres to Kim's policies of engagement.
Still, South Korea recently proposed building a generation of medium-range missiles that could strike much of North Korea. By doing so, Kim may have been demonstrating to his people his resolve to maintain a strong military deterrent against North Korea. But in Washington, Seoul's plans set off fears of an new arms race on the Korean peninsula.
Lho Kyong Soo, a professor at Seoul National University, said the United States had nothing to fear from the South's ambitions. He said they were simply necessary to close what he called the "missile gap" with North Korea and reduce reliance on the United States for defense.
"I think the government is pretty determined that we need our own independent deterrent against North Korea," Lho said.
For many in Asia, a troubling aspect of the recent turmoil is the slow but sure move by Japan to take more responsibility for its own defense. Japan has been staunchly pacifist since World War II and reliant on U.S. military intelligence and weapons. But recent events have caused Japan to rethink that relationship.
Japan was shocked by a North Korean missile launch over its territory last summer, and it has since begun work on a $1.7 billion surveillance satellite to detect such launches. Tokyo also has pledged $10 million for research with the United States into a "Star Wars" missile defense system, which China adamantly opposes.
This week, Japanese defense officials also said they plan to seek funding to purchase four midair refueling aircraft by 2005. Those plans, which would cost more than $660 million, would extend the range of Japan's Self Defense Forces' fighter planes. Opposition parties have criticized the plan, saying that purchasing refueling planes for such purposes runs counter to the spirit of the Japan's pacifist constitution.
"The Japanese are coming to grips with the reality that Japan cannot be like an ostrich hiding behind the United States' security system doing nothing," said Yukio Okamoto, who has been a top government defense consultant.
Okamoto acknowledged that any movement toward more independent defense capability in Japan sets off alarms in China. "Unfortunately that is the historic reality we have to live with," he said.