Asia Pacific anti-terror politics

The ongoing anti-terror war along the Asia Pacific Rim has no frontline-states, at least not as yet, in the U.S. calculus.

A CAMPAIGN against terror, in reality a subtle war without frontiers and frontline-states at present, has been declared along the Asia Pacific Rim, which extends from Japan in the north to Australia and New Zealand in the south. The U.S. has certainly sounded the bugle here as elsewhere, and the war itself bristles with all the overtones and undercurrents of high nobility and low evil. However, the American President, George W. Bush, does not indicate, at least not yet, that the anti-terror war in East Asia will be waged with the same passion and the same sense of political righteousness that characterise his ongoing campaigns in another part of the world. The contrast cannot be of greater clarity than it is now.

The identifiable targets in East Asia, too, range from the ubiquitous terrorists with a misguided but radical "Islamic agenda" to the sabre-rattling but dysfunctional state with a confessional arsenal that consists of weapons of mass destruction at various stages of production and deployment. The "enemy" is either the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI with whatever other names it might adopt or appear to do so) or the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea or indeed both these two entities. No linkage has been established between the JI and the powers-that-be in Pyongyang just as the world outside Mr. Bush's grand citadel has not been able to detect any direct nexus of evil between the Al-Qaeda terrorists and Iraq in another part of the world.

Mr. Kim's impoverished dream-state of "army-centred" pan-Korean "nationalism" is surely very different from Iraq whose leader, Saddam Hussein, is wary of sporting his "nuclearised" heart on his shirt-sleeve. However, insofar as Mr. Bush's controversial agenda of cracking the alleged "axis of evil" is concerned, there ought to be little fine distinction between either Iraq or Iran, both key members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), on one side, and North Korea, which the West tends to see as a quintessentially anachronistic state with fossilised politics and a modernist urge to possess futuristic weapons of mass destruction.

In an altogether different perspective, North Korea remains largely isolated on the international stage, except for China's undeniable yet exhaustible "influence" over Pyongyang. In some significant contrast, Iraq and Iran may still be able to keep friends and influence nations within the pan-Islamic OIC network. However, the large dissimilarities and the slight resemblance between East Asia and Iraq's Islamic neighbourhood do not fully explain why the ongoing anti-terror war along the Asia Pacific Rim has no frontline-states, at least not as yet, in the U.S. calculus.

The U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, Frank Lavin, has outlined an answer to this puzzle. Asked to specify whether Malaysia or Singapore would be America's frontline-state in the campaign against terrorism in East Asia, especially as Indonesia has yet to get its anti-terror act together, Mr. Lavin responded by maintaining that the U.S. has (so far) developed no plans for a military strike against the terrorists in this region. While frontline-states are the stuff of military strategies in one geopolitical context or the other, the U.S. is (still) seeking to wage the war against terrorism in East Asia through a coalition with the proactive countries of the region, he hinted. This idea of coalition is a subtle sub-text of the joint anti-terror declaration that the U.S. had signed last July with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The U.S., which plays a traditional military-strategic role in maintaining "peace and stability" in the wider Asia Pacific region, is in a position to interact with both China and South Korea for anti-terror purposes outside the ASEAN area, especially when North Korea's atomic-armament ambitions are viewed in the overall context of state-terrorism and "nuclear blackmail".

The devastating terrorist strike at a holiday resort on the Indonesian island of Bali in October — the worst such attack since September 11, 2001 — has catapulted Jakarta to the centre stage of anti-terror politics in East Asia. With the JI suspected to have grown to prominence in the Indonesian archipelago and spread its terrorist wings across the region, the Megawati administration's strategic deficit, which the West tends to see as a reality, will continue to pose a challenge to Washington, at least in the immediate present, as the U.S. Ambassador in Jakarta, Ralph Boyce, has hinted to the extent a diplomat could do.

The JI was first tracked proactively by Singapore on its intelligence radar screens last December. The city-state's latest "findings" suggest that the JI wants to terrorise the region and create a pan-Islamic state, comprising Indonesia as also Malaysia and parts of the Philippines and perhaps even Singapore itself. Malaysia, which falls well within the telescopic sights of the JI, has repeatedly expressed its commitment to the anti-terror cause. However, if the U.S. does not look upon Malaysia, a Muslim-majority state with a multicultural society, as a frontline-state in the anti-terror campaign, the reason has something to do with Kuala Lumpur's calls that the "root causes" of terrorism should be addressed so that a particular religious group does not get demonised in popular perceptions.

Singapore, on the other hand, is not only too small in size but also too closely identified with the U.S. (rightly or wrongly so) to be able to serve additionally as a designated frontline-state in America's anti-terror war.

That might leave Thailand and the Philippines as two other possible candidates in South East Asia. Both have had a history of being America's allies, while the U.S.-Filipino equation has also witnessed a chequered phase of a far greater intensity than that in the case of Bangkok, which has often tried to humour China without being offensive towards Washington. On balance, at this stage, the U.S. has yet to make up its mind about Thailand and the Philippines in this anti-terror context.

India does not belong to East Asia although, according to Western sources, the U.S. may yet look towards New Delhi, if at all necessary in the post-Bali blast context, for naval escort for specified purposes through the Straits of Malacca in a revival of the time-specific scheme that satisfactorily concluded several weeks ago.

However, South Korea and China will increasingly figure in the American calculus, with or without the concept of frontline-states, even as the North Korean nuclear issue heats up.

Japan, with its strategic psyche still anchored to the MacArthur-era Constitution, rules itself out as a frontline-state, at least for the present moment.

In contrast, Beijing, as Samuel S. Kim has argued, appears to interact with the U.S. in the context of a "hegemonic stability theory with Chinese characteristics". In simple terms, China recognises the U.S. as a potential economic partner while being wary of Washington's long-term strategic goals. However, the anti-terror campaign may yet produce a new Sino-American dynamic.

Recommended for you