September 11 anniversary : the challenge of response

SCMP September 9, 2002

The ultimate importance of September 11 will be determined not by the event itself, stunning though it was, but by reactions to it. The US reaction is a work in progress but one which is making much of Asia distinctly nervous.

There is widespread concern in the region on two counts. Firstly, that the elusive nature of el-Qaeda is resulting in an ever widening definition of the war against it. This is reflected in a determination to beat up on some Muslims and Arabs by way of revenge - hence the threatened war against Iraq though there is not much evidence that Iraq is a danger other than to its immediate neighbours. One of these, Iran, was the main victim of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons when he was backed by the west.

East Asia is quite remote from the specifics of what is happening but fears the magnitude of the global turmoil that could be created by the Bush administration's apparent determination to go to war. It is reminiscent of the 1956 Suez crisis when British Prime Minister Anthony Eden's obsession with toppling Egyptian Dictator Gamal abdel-Nasser which ended in British humiliation when the US refused, quite rightly, to back the venture.

Secondly, the US outpouring of self-pity has engendered a new nationalism in the US which runs counter to the free-trading and internationalist spirit that had dominated US policy and from which Asia has been a major beneficiary. These included various decisions to reject UN and other multinational processes in favour of unilateralism, and the implementation of harsh new protectionism as represented by steel tariffs and the extension of farm subsidies.

Unilateralism was always going to be a feature of a Bush administration heavy with fundamentalist Christians and cold war warriors. But September 11 has given the hawks the upper hand in the policy-making, to the detriment of the more internationalist outlook of Colin Powell and most other survivors from the first Bush administration. Likewise, trade frictions would have increased anyway under the stress of weak global demand. But September 11 helped widen the gap between US free trade rhetoric and reality.

The economic implications may be especially important for an east Asia which is relatively remote from Middle East and el-Qaeda concerns but is dependent on US-led global trade. The immediate aftermath of September 11 was in fact quite positive. The need for the appearance of international solidarity enabled the Doha trade summit to exceed expectations and launch another round of global trade talks with an agenda of further liberalisation and reform of farm trade. Dramatic interest rate cuts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 helped markets overcome the shock of the event and together with increased government spending in the US generated a modest economic upturn.

However it now looks likely that this stimulus merely delayed the inevitable - a prolonged or short but deep US recession. The cost of sustaining US demand has been an even bigger trade deficit and ever higher levels of household debt. A return to trade equilibrium and sustainable debt levels was always going to be difficult. The adjustment has been postponed and must now take place in much more difficult international circumstances.

On the one hand is the possibility of war and another oil crisis. On the other is increased trade strains, especially across the Atlantic, which are being fed by disagreements on other issues ranging from the environment to Iraq. East Asia can generally keep out of direct involvement in these spats. But it cannot be exempt from the wider consequences.

At the political level however east Asia may broadly have gained from post September events. Early on, the Bush administration seemed to be focusing on redefining China policy in a way which was sure to increase frictions with Beijing. Closer ties with Taiwan and the perception - not unrealistic - that the rise of China constituted a long term threat to US interests in east Asia supplanted the generally benign view of China shown by the Clinton administration.

But concentration on new bogeymen, el-Qaeda and various Middle East Muslim states, and the need to obtain China's cooperation in the "war on terror" have kept Washington-Beijing relations generally stable, if hardly warm. China's goal is to maintain a stable economic relationship. Washington's is to ensure Beijing's acquiescence with its actions in central Asia and the Middle East. So far the balance has held, the main losers being the Uighur nationalists in Xinjiang who have been tarred with the el-Qaeda brush not only by China but by a cynical US.

The recent return to dialogue on the Korean peninsula may also owe something to September 11. That may seem surprising after President Bush's including North Korea in his "axis of evil" rhetoric - to the annoyance of most South Koreans. Previously Mr Bush had virtually humiliated President Kim Dae Jung, implicitly pouring cold water on his "sunshine" policy towards Pyongyang. However, with the US attentions elsewhere, and pressured by China and Russia North Korea saw an opportunity for resuming dialogue which was eagerly seized by Seoul and even promoted by Japan.

Despite opposition from the extreme right wing - see the regular rantings in that bible of western imperialism The Wall Street Journal editorial page -- it has been accepted by the US. Washington will probably be able to extract some appearance of victory if Pyongyang makes concessions on missile sales in return for more aid and international acceptance.

Whether reform in the North and dialogue with the South get anywhere significant this time around remains to be seen. But on the Korean peninsula as in the Middle East, post-September 11 has seen Russia return to a significant position in international affairs. President Putin has played his cards well, vigorously pursuing Russia's national interests in some theatres while conceding a free hand to the US in central Asia and the EU in eastern Europe.

Southeast Asia has felt a more direct impact from September 11. It has pointed up the fact that extremist Muslim groups, some possibly linked to el-Qaeda exist in several countries of the region. But it has also shown the dangers of exaggerating their influence. US intervention against the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan island in the Sulu archipelago is a case in point.

In Washington it may have looked an easy place to win a victory over el-Qaeda, meanwhile rebuilding a military presence in the Philippines. But it is even clear in Washington now that the Abu Sayyaf were more a local gang of murderous kidnappers than an ideologically committed international terror group. While enormous publicity has been given to a (largely successful) operation against them in Basilan, the main rebel groups in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which controls a chunk of central Mindanao and the Communist New Peoples Army have been quietly expanding their influence.

Meanwhile America's obsession with Islamic movements of almost any stripe has led to irritation in Indonesia which has been pressured to arrest people for what they say rather than what they do. Indonesia certainly has extremist groups, but as events in Maluku and elsewhere have shown these are long established, home grown and more a threat to the cohesion of a plural nation with a secular constitution than to the outside world.

Whilst Indonesia has been keen to play down its fundamentalists' significance, Malaysia's Dr Mahathir Mohamad has used them to good effect. Guilt by association has badly hurt the main opposition Parti Islam. It has so helped restore the political standing of the Prime Minister which in turn may well have influenced him to announcing his retirement next year. Meanwhile his international stature has also improved. Arrests of opposition figures under the Internal Security Act once criticised by the west have, since September 11, been praised as showing solidarity in the fight against Muslim terror.

The west's post-September readiness to go along with any kind of regime so long as it pronounced itself anti-terror and anti-Muslim extremism is reminiscent of the cold war era. However, failure to distinguish between advocates of an Islamic state and perpetrators of violence to achieve it - or other extremist religious goals -- has already undermined the influence in Asia of western advocates of liberal and democratic ideas. Where is the moral high ground in propping up the likes of Uzbekistan's President Karimov?

So too has the US secret imprisonment without trial or charges of a large number of non-citizens. Most of these are Muslim as well as brown, though large numbers of non-Muslim Asians, mostly from India and the Philippines, have also been caught in the proto-fascist "security" net.

But an America with 6 million or so Muslim citizens probably has more to worry about the damage it is doing to itself than the damage a few extremists in Asian countries can do to it. Meanwhile Asian countries are no closer than others to defining the line between terror and freedom fighting. The "war on terror" is just a phrase which means nothing in violent trouble spots such as Aceh, Irian, and various parts of the Philippines and Burma, not to mention Kashmir. The rhetoric about fighting terrorism everywhere is a dangerous diversion from the real issue: combating al-Qaeda.

The wider the war, the more difficult to win and the more "collateral damage" in the form of new enemies created. Likewise, exaggerating the threat of el-Qaeda is a danger to free societies everywhere. Relative to carnage on the roads, or death through over-eating, the losses that terrorism can inflict are still very small, and hence a small price to pay for liberties. The greatest danger of September 11 remains over-reaction. Ends

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