KONGSept. 11 did not change the world, at least from most Asian
perspectives. It altered many things, influenced many relationships, but few see
it as an event akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Vietnam War.
Sympathy with the United States was
initially strong. But it is fading due to time and a U.S. response which
increasingly seems focused less on an elusive Al Qaeda and more on conspicuous
targets, notably Iraq, regardless of culpability and with scattergun "axis of
Sympathy is being eroded, too, by the now
almost daily stories of Asian migrants and visitors to the United States caught
up in wide-ranging "homeland defense" sweeps to which brown people, especially
with turbans, seem particularly vulnerable.
Naturally, the Asian impact varies
according to geography. Generally, the further east one goes, the less it seems
that the day was the hinge of an era. The deepest impact has been on the
subcontinent, with U.S. pursuit of the Taliban having the unintended but
inevitable result of arousing India-Pakistan relations to a new level of
tension. Yet, despite the best efforts of some members of the governing Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to stir up anti-Muslim feeling, it does not
seem to have had serious negative impact on communal relations within India.
A more lasting influence may be to
promote U.S.-$ Indian relations, which were already being transformed by mutual
anxieties about China and by increasing migration and technology links.
Bangladesh's 120 million Muslims seem barely touched by the global hue and cry
about Islam - an admirable testament to their adherence to a secular state and
ethnic identity. Sri Lanka may benefit by restrictions on fund flows to the
Tamil Tigers now that these pioneers of suicide bombing have belatedly been
declared terrorists by the international community.
Southeast Asia has been singled out as a
second front, but the "war on terror" has been more of an occasion for local
politicking. There is a feeling in Asia that the United States has exaggerated
the threat in the region, feeding alarmist stories to journalists. U.S.
involvement against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan has captured the headlines, but
its Al Qaeda links were never more than tenuous and the "war" has had scant
beneficial effect on law and order in the Philippines. The more coherent rebel
groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Communist New People's Army,
have if anything quietly gained ground as the army has concentrated on the Abu
Indonesia has come under pressure from
the United States to crack down on some Muslim extremists, but Jakarta has
bigger problems to worry about and has never been given much evidence that
established fundamentalist groups did more than preach. President Megawati
Sukarnoputri treads carefully around religious issues.
Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of
Malaysia has successfully used Sept. 11 as a weapon against his main opponents,
the Parti Islam. It is possible that the event has permanently turned the tide
against religion-based politics in Malaysia. More likely, it is a tactical gain
for the governing United Malays National Organization.
East Asia, on the other hand, may have
indirectly benefited. Sept. 11 distracted the Bush administration from
antagonism toward a China which in turn has won concessions from the United
States in return for its acceptance of U.S. troops in Central Asia.
The Koreas may have benefited, too.
President George W. Bush's linking of the North to Saddam Hussein through the
axis-of-evil rhetoric has made the other players, even Japan, more aware of the
need to restart dialogue. The United States has been too preoccupied elsewhere
to resist. Diplomatically, it has lost ground to Russia as well as China. Asia
is less worried than it was that post-Sept. 11 security-driven controls on
movements of goods and people would be disruptive. However, aggressive U.S.
stances on agricultural and steel trade, among other issues, are seen as linked
to post-Sept. 11 nationalism. Sympathy for the United States has given way to a
feeling that it has been indulging in an excess of self-pity. There is real
concern in Asia that the manner of the U.S. response may be furthering Osama bin
Laden's goals of undermining friendships, sowing discord between the West and
the rest, goading the United States into abandoning liberal and free trading
traditions. The aim of terror is political, not military.
Despite that, the U.S. focus has been
shifting from Al Qaeda to Iraq. In Asia there is almost no support for a war
with Iraq, whose use of chemical weapons against Iran was covertly applauded by
the West. Would an Iraq war be more than a substitute for failing to capture bin
Laden? If so, it makes a poor memorial to those who died on Sept. 11.