KONGThere is unease in East Asia at events in Afghanistan and the
evolution of the "global war on terrorism." There is no sympathy for Osama bin
Laden, but unease reflects worry that the response to Sept. 11 will do more harm
than good. It also taps into old wells of anti-Western sentiment.
Despite Asia's infatuation with Western
popular and technological culture, and continued reliance on the U.S. strategic
umbrella, Western political agendas are under scrutiny.
Do not expect this to come out into the
open at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit conference in
Shanghai. But beyond tokens of noncombat support for the coalition against
terror there are concerns about its motives and wisdom. Sympathy for the United
States is starting to erode as the images of Sept. 11 are replaced by those of
Few doubt that America has every right to
punish the perpetrators and disrupt the networks of those plotting further
outrages. All would be happy to see the back of the Taliban, and hope that this
crisis may permanently alleviate other problems such as Palestine and
Chinese-U.S. relations. However, when Asians look at the coalition many note
that its active members are principally the white, Western Christian nations
that not long ago were lording it over Asia. Top of the list is Britain, which
to many in Asia seems to be hankering for a replay in miniature of Pax
Britannica. Sections of Tony Blair's recent speech about bringing justice to the
world could have been composed by Lord Palmerston, his Victorian predecessor.
Next in line is France, whose
ill-tempered and bloody decolonization is still remembered.
Also on the coalition's active list is
Australia, which wants to be part of Asia but in some Asian eyes prefers to play
little brother to America. All this may be unfair, but it is as well to
recognize that the war is bringing to the surface old grudges, whether Chinese
over the opium wars or Indian and Malay over European rule. Many still smart
from the battering they received from Western financial institutions during the
Asian economic crisis. The suggestion that "those who are not with us are
against us" grates in countries that have been suffering from terrorism for
years. It is resented in India and Indonesia, which were pilloried for Cold War
nonalignment. They now recall that it was the West (and China) which helped
Khmer Rouge terror continue for a decade after 1979. Widespread if muted
high-level concern over a Western-led war in Asia could in time be more of a
problem for the United States than the theatrical opposition of some Muslims.
Almost anyone can organize 500 demonstrators to burn flags in front of CNN in
Jakarta, where antipathy to U.S. policies is more than offset by appreciation of
most other American things.
Asian concerns about Western goals are
for now overridden in public by self-interest. All offer token support for the
United States in return for whatever they need - money, trade, arms or using
anti-terrorism as cover for suppressing local dissidents. But the war already
has a political cost for the West in Asia that will grow if the Afghan campaign
drags on or involves other Asian theaters.
Southeast Asians are concerned that too
much is being made of links between their Muslims and bin Laden. Muslim
separatist struggles in the southern Philippines are three decades old. The Abu
Sayyaf group now being linked to bin Laden has been successful at extortion, but
to present this local kidnap band as part of a global movement is absurd.
Indonesia's nasty Laskar Jihad did not need bin Laden's money. There was plenty
from associates of ousted President Suharto anxious to make life difficult for
his successors by slaughtering Christians in the Maluku.
Each of Southeast Asia's Islamic trouble
spots is sui generis. Fitting them into an international conspiracy masterminded
by "the evil one" is giving them undeserved credit and complicates responses to
legitimate Muslim political movements in Malaysia and Thailand.
While willing for now to allow America a
free hand against bin Laden, East Asian countries appear nervous about a wider
war on a terrorism. Were the Viet Cong or the Indonesian independence fighters
or the French maquis terrorists? Sympathy for the Palestinians as victims of
Western imperialism is found in most Asian countries previously under Western
Those most sympathetic to the United
States worry about overreaction. South Koreans recall the restraint that they
were required to exercise after Pyongyang's terror attacks, such as the one in
Rangoon that killed several cabinet ministers.
Some ask why so much emphasis is on Asia
when the terrorists came from the Arab world and operate as much from the cities
of Europe as from Afghan caves. Others ask why the British bomb Afghanistan but
take no action against those in Dublin and Boston who shelter IRA terrorists.
In sum, acceptance of America's right to
respond and to defend itself is beginning to be shadowed by concerns that the
West is getting into an Asian campaign without clear aims or exit strategy but
with a savior self-image reminiscent of an earlier age.