11 anniversary : the challenge of response
SCMP September 9, 2002
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.