KONGIn its current mood, Washington may neither know nor care, but its
policy on Iraq has few supporters in East Asia. In a short space of time the war
rhetoric has done immense damage to the U.S. image, and the policy shift from
deterrence to preemption has seeded concerns among friendly countries, several
of which provide America with military facilities.
To people holed up in the mental bunkers
in which much of the U.S. media and political class now resides, the views of
nations far from the Middle East locus of the crisis may not seem to matter. But
from reading the regional editorials and canvassing Asian opinion at last week's
East Asia meeting in Kuala Lumpur of the World Economic Forum, it is evident
that views of President George W. Bush's determination to wage war on Iraq to
finish off Saddam Hussein range from anger to derision.
There is, however, a sense of fatalism,
mixed with concern that bluntly criticizing the United States will do no good
but merely damage relations with Washington. Asked whether East Asian allies
could not do more to get their views across, one prime minister retorted: "If
Bush won't listen to the Europeans, even to Blair, do you suppose he will listen
to us Asians?"
Such normally deeply pro-American people
as democrats in Hong Kong or Chinese businessmen in Malaysia are dismissive of
U.S. claims that the Saddam regime presents a clear and present danger to anyone
other than Iraqis. They worry that Bush's policies are leading the world into an
uncertain and quite unnecessary war fraught with dangers far in excess of any
possible gains to be made ousting a long cowed Saddam.
Bush may "refuse to live in fear," but it
is hard to find Asians who believe that Saddam is a threat to the United States,
or that the United States has a right to impose "regime change" or that Iraq has
any more chemical weapons now than in the 1980s when it was using them with
impunity against Iran and the Kurds. If war does eventually get a United Nations
mandate, the countries of the region will go along with it - but reluctantly and
believing that the war is due more to Washington's desire to settle old scores
than to any real threat from Iraq.
Among Muslim Asians there is particular
animosity toward what they see as an overtly anti-Muslim campaign drummed up by
Christian fundamentalists and other pro-Israel elements in Washington. But
non-Muslims, too, suggest that there is another expansionist nation in the
Middle East armed with weapons of mass destruction, prone to attack civilian
targets and which has been defying UN resolutions for years: Israel. Muslims,
recognizing that their religious extremists are a big part of the problem, are
often more cautious in criticizing America than non-Muslims. The latter are more
inclined to see cynicism rather than religious prejudice in U.S. attitudes. At
the least, they worry that Washington is harming business by exaggerating the
dangers of terrorism in Southeast Asia, and there is annoyance at the visa and
other restrictions being imposed on many Asian nationals.
At worst, they see a revival of Western
imperialism, with the other predominantly white English-speaking nations,
Britain and Australia, playing supporting roles. The implications for Asia of
the strategic shift from deterrence to preemption are still being assessed. Most
of Asia has long lived contentedly under the U.S. umbrella, which has guarded
smaller nations against other big powers, reduced the likelihood of local wars
and provided the strategic background for trade-based economic success.
But the notion that the United States
feels a right to take preemptive action against any state which threatens its
supremacy in any particular theater is troubling in an East Asia trying to deal
with the rise of China as a military and economic power.
It disturbs South Koreans trying to mix
deterrence with engagement with the North. It worries Taiwan that China could
try to apply preemption across the straits. It may undermine the active support
that Japan is giving to the missile defense shield.
U.S. hegemony in East Asia is not founded
just on military power and the importance of U.S. markets. It is based on the
military and diplomatic cooperation that the United States receives because it
is viewed as a benign and stabilizing presence that uses force only as a last
resort. Long may that continue.