Can Asian governments contain anti-Americanism?
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray (Senior Fellow , Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
This article originally appeared in the April, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
One incident in the war on Iraq revealed for me the clash of race that underlies many conflicts. When a US sergeant ran amok in Kuwait, hurling grenades into the tents of his comrades, other Americans immediately pounced on two Kuwaiti contractors working in the camp. That instinctive suspicion of the Asians in their midst also helps to explain America's fierce refusal to allow the United Nations any role in Iraq's post-war reconstruction.
Logically, this should divide the world along ethnic lines. But like recent Afro-Asian meetings in Sharm el-Sheik, Kuala Lumpur and Cairo, security council debates on Iraq confirmed the sad disarray that prevents the Arab, Islamic, Asian and non-aligned camps from speaking with one voice.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is split down the middle. If I was to seek a common slogan for its 10 members, the 22-member Arab League, the 56-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the 115-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it would be, "What's in it for me?" They know that thanks to Saudi largesse, all the participants, even the Soviet Union, did very well out of Desert Storm 12 years ago.
In contrast, the pitch of protests suggests Asian public opinion is fervently for Iraq. So is the media, with its screaming headlines and thundering denunciations. Both are profoundly embarrassing for rulers who see the war as an extension of domestic politics. No wonder OIC foreign ministers squirmed when asked why they did not use their oil weapon against the United States.
All Arab League nations belong to the OIC. All OIC and Asean members are in the NAM. A few Asian countries do not share these platforms, but that makes little attitudinal difference. Concern for Iraq or fear of terrorists has little to do with their response. Morality even less. Opportunity is all.
Take China. It has expressed "serious concern", but no guardian of the world's peace, as a permanent member of the security council is supposed to be, could have been quieter during weeks of tumultuous argument.
China has sound reasons for circumspection. America is tremendously important for trade and investment. It alone can supply the cutting-edge technology China needs. It can obstruct vital oil imports. Masterly inaction might ensure leverage over Taiwan and North Korea. Moreover, the US won considerable goodwill last September by co-sponsoring China's proposal to declare the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organisation. But China also kept its options open (and burnished its radical credentials) by allowing the Chinese Islamic Association, which represents 20 million Muslims, to issue a statement condemning the Western allies "for attacking Iraq".
Or take Malaysia. It is the NAM chairman. It is the OIC's chairman designate. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has promised not to step down until after the OIC's Kuala Lumpur summit in October.
Although the OIC and Arab League have passed resolutions criticising the war, several members are helping the US military. Syria voted for UN Resolution 1441. Dr Mahathir himself breathes fire and brimstone against America. But, unlike neighbouring Indonesia, which is also Muslim, he banned demonstrations in Iraq's support, lest rowdiness frightens tourists and investors. The order was lifted under pressure only last weekend. He dismisses the notion of Muslim volunteers fighting for Iraq as "stupid".
Few like President Saddam Hussein. Fewer still relish the prospect of Americans overthrowing an Asian government by force and making no bones of their intention to see its leader dead. Middle East potentates who have much in common with Mr Hussein dare not make common cause because, unlike him, they need US protection to survive.
The public demonstrations and media tirades that some regimes might contrive, to divert attention from themselves, also expose a yawning gulf between rulers and ruled.
The dichotomy can be profoundly dangerous for rulers who do not realise they are sitting on a time bomb, for the US is perceived as the omnipotent enemy and, above all, for peace and stability. Nothing incites violence more powerfully than the combination of negligent regimes and impotent rage at the grassroots.