Saturday, April 30, 2005

Growing Asian antipathy for the global policeman

The Business Times

July 9, 2002

Sentiment is rising in this part of the world for America to fight its battles on its own turf - and to respect the national priorities of other countries

By Thang Nguyen

SINCE last Sept 11, the United States has made efforts to take its campaign against terrorism to Asia. Washington's message is clear: terrorism is a threat to all of us, and Asia, like other regions, should join the U.S. in the fight against it.

Nevertheless, the U.S. seems to be alone in this fight. While most Asian leaders may support Washington's campaign, they have other domestic priorities that are more urgent to them than the fight against terrorists. Moreover, there is a perception that the U.S. is taking on the role of the world policeman in Asia. However noble the U.S. motives and intentions may be, many in Asia remain wary.

Thus far, the U.S. has sent 1,200 troops and a US$100 million aid package to the Philippines. Its main rationale is to help the Philippines fight the Abu Sayyaf, a group of southern Muslim rebels.

Since the Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign forces from engaging in combat on its soil, Washington has no choice but to camouflage its fight against the Abu Sayyaf as a 'training' programme for Philippine soldiers. But the fact remains that the US forces would also like to make use of the occasion to rescue an American missionary couple kidnapped by the group more than a year ago.

Five months have passed since the U.S. troops arrived on the island of Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf are based. Recently, a clash between Philippine soldiers and the rebels killed one of the American hostages, wounded the other and killed a Philippine hostage.

Since this event, some Filipinos have questioned the role of the U.S. in the Philippines. Last week, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona quit his concurrent Cabinet post as foreign secretary over the issue.

It is unclear how long the US troops will stay in the Philippines, but the former colonial ruler's relations with the Philippines will always be ambivalent if the US maintains troops there on a permanent basis.

As the Kashmiri insurgency worsened in the past few months, the Bush administration also began to play the role of a crisis manager in South Asia. Secretary of State Colin Powell led a campaign to persuade both India and Pakistan from escalating their conflict.

Recently, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the region. In making these diplomatic moves, Washington hoped - out of the belief that Osama bin Laden is still alive and perhaps hiding in Kashmir - to rid Al-Qaeda left-overs who might have run away from Afghanistan.

As sensible as this effort may seem, both the Indians and the Pakistanis are simply too preoccupied with their own situation to even think about anti-U.S. terrorists, let alone helping Washington find them.

Supported by its hawkish members like Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, the Bush administration has also been talking about resuming its military assistance to Jakarta.

Being home to the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia would appear to be a legitimate concern to the U.S.. But the Bush administration may run into domestic resistance in the U.S. The Indonesian military is accused of atrocities and human-right abuses in the now independent nation of East Timor and in other regions in Indonesia over the past few years.

For this reason, the U.S.Congress may not approve the plan to send military aid to Indonesia. Some members of the Congress, such as Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, argue that the U.S.should not forget the past human-rights violations by Indonesia's military.

Furthermore, as Indonesia tries to overcome its own economic hardship and to manage its inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and inter-regional conflicts, it is clear that fighting terrorism is not the first item on the government's list of priorities.

'Combating terrorism only constitutes one priority when maintaining territorial integrity; recovering the economy and resolving communal conflicts have to be given high priority on the national agenda,' said Matori Abdul Djalil, the Indonesian defence minister, during an Asia Security Conference held last month in Singapore.

Beyond South-east Asia, other Asian nations cannot be of much help to the US in the fight either. Japan is too busy trying to get out of its economic troubles, and that is a more urgent priority for Japan than terrorism.

As for China, economic growth is the most important issue on its national agenda after its long-awaited entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Furthermore, as the host of the 2008 Olympics, China has a lot of work cut out for it.

Despite Vice-President Hu Jintao's visit to the U.S., Beijing will not join Washington in its campaign mainly because of the Bush administration's relations with Taipei; it is a sore point for China.

Finally, there is a perception in Asia that Sept 11 has not changed the region much and that the fight against terrorism is an American problem. As such, some Asians would prefer that America not fight its war on their soil. 'The best thing the U.S. can do is stay away,' said Rizal Sukma of Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

So what are the lessons from the U.S.' post-Sept 11 engagement in Asia? The first is that America's fight against terrorism is misperceived as a unilateral act of intrusion in many parts of Asia. There is also a fear that regional conflicts may not be resolved just because the U.S. becomes involved. As a matter of fact, many believe these conflicts may worsen when the U.S. gets involved. This is exactly how the American war in Vietnam started - and what was the end result?

Before getting into adventures in other parts of the world, the U.S. should, therefore, have a clear objective and ensure that it has the support of both the American people and Congress at home.

Whatever the U.S. would like to do in Asia - or any other region for that matter - it should keep in mind that other countries have their priorities, and that it must win the hearts and minds of their peoples before coming here to do battle.

The writer is regional manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum. The views expressed in this article are his personal opinion and do not represent those of the World Economic Forum.


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