Why Asia Fears Bush's War

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Prajim Praiwet thinks he knows all about the U.S. and its wars. The 55-year-old Thai rice farmer remembers four decades ago when the jungles of his home province, Nakhon Phanom, were a key staging ground in American-backed efforts to eradicate communism in Indochina. Then a teenager, he watched in despair as a proxy war between the U.S. and China terrorized his little village: U.S.-funded Thai troops tortured and killed locals, while the communists responded by beheading Thai soldiers. "America will bully other countries because it is strong," says Prajim. "Everyone else will suffer."

This time around, the battleground is thousands of miles away in Iraq. But the weathered Thai peasant speaks for many Asians who appear surprisingly unified both in their condemnation of unilateral U.S. action in the Middle East and their worry that this faraway fight could have very local repercussions. Their fears are manifold. Asian investors worry that their reeling stock portfolios will be further ravaged by war, while businessmen fret that further oil price hikes will clobber their export-led economies. Political leaders, meanwhile, are wary of Islamic extremists interpreting an attack on Saddam Hussein as yet another call to arms, triggering more terrorist actions in Asia and even radicalizing Muslim moderates. But beyond these economic and political anxieties, there is also a moral component to Asia's concern: the U.S., its critics argue, hasn't sufficiently justified an engagement in Iraq, and Washington's go-it-alone approach is proof of an arrogant and increasingly aggressive superpower willing to ignore global opposition. "There is no difference in the way Hindus and Muslims think on Iraq," says Anand Varadhan, an Indian bank employee in the Hindu holy town of Varanasi. "The American argument for war just makes no sense."

That critical message was voiced with mounting urgency last week as antiwar demonstrators flocked to peace protests across the region from Rawalpindi to Taipei. The largest gathering took place in the eastern Indonesian city of Surabaya, where 700,000 citizens—more than the entire population of Washington, D.C.—came together to condemn the march toward war. Some top Asian leaders, such as Japan's Junichiro Koizumi and Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri, have remained relatively circumspect about the Iraq crisis, mostly reiterating European and African calls for a United Nations-led attempt to disarm Saddam. But there has also been plenty of Yankee-bashing in state-monitored Asian newspapers. Opined the New Straits Times in Malaysia: "[This] is about the imposition of a Pax Americana on the Middle East. All the justifications—democracy, human rights and regional stability—echo the double-talk used by 19th-century European imperialists, who conquered and plundered Africa and Asia." Seconded the China Business Times, the mainland's leading economic journal: "We are facing a more and more aggressive America, an America that frequently wields its fists."

America may be used to catcalls from the French or the Germans, but the heatedness of the antiwar debate in Asia has caught the Bush Administration by surprise. After all, Pax Americana in Asia was supposed to mean peace, stability and economic resurrection. The U.S. military has stationed 37,000 troops in South Korea to keep the divided peninsula from self-destructing; it has sent thousands of special operatives and soldiers to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines to help root out terrorism; its aircraft carriers have on occasion plied the waters near the Taiwan Strait to bolster an uneasy peace between Taipei and Beijing. For the most part, these interventions have been viewed as benign. So it was no surprise, perhaps, that during the last Gulf War—while skeptics in Europe grumbled that the conflict was about oil, not democracy—the U.S. enjoyed broad support from Asians, who saw a well-meaning superpower determined to free a tiny Islamic kingdom from Iraqi aggressors.

But over the past decade, America the benevolent has morphed in many Asian minds into America the bully. Granted, Asians still love their Big Macs, their Levis, their Harvard M.B.A.s. If given the chance, many Asians would happily leave their homelands for a life in New York or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, anti-American sentiment in Asia is brewing far stronger than a Starbucks espresso. Southeast Asian economies still hung over from 1997's financial crisis continue to blame the International Monetary Fund—which they see as a puppet of Washington—for exacerbating their fiscal woes. In China, an increasingly nationalist populace is clamoring for the country to stand up against what some dub "American hegemony." South Korean students too young to remember the Korean War have taken to protesting the presence of the U.S. military, incited by an event last summer in which a U.S. Army armored personnel carrier struck and killed two Korean schoolgirls. Even the Japanese are standing up against America in increasing numbers, after decades of obediently hewing to Washington's line. A long-simmering movement to scrap Japan's 1945 U.S.-mandated constitution that prevents the country from having an offensive military is bubbling anew, at the same time as peace protesters are filling Tokyo's streets. The two factions might come from opposing camps, but their sentiments add up to one message: America, don't meddle where you don't belong.

Nowhere is anti-U.S. feeling stronger than in the Islamic crescent of South and Southeast Asia, where political leaders worry that a moderate Muslim majority could be radicalized by a Gulf conflict. Many Muslims regard a war against Saddam as an attack on innocent Iraqi Muslims, a suspicion intensified by members of the Bush Administration who in the past used words such as "crusade" to define the potential hostilities. "We see a war on Iraq as an assault on Muslims," says Moulana Obaidul Haq, the chief imam of the state-run Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. "We want to see an end to all the enemies of Islam."


 

Malaysia's perennially outspoken Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has told local business leaders that an attack against Iraq "will simply anger more Muslims who see this as being anti-Muslim rather than being antiterror." And in Indonesia, mainstream Islamic organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah—key allies in the government's attempt to control extremist groups—also oppose an American engagement in Iraq. "I'm afraid the U.S. could lose the support of moderate Muslim groups," warns Syafii Maarif, head of Muhammadiyah, the country's second largest Muslim organization with some 20 million members. "In Indonesia, radicalism will increase because they will see an invasion as another example of America's neo-imperialism."

One of Asia's biggest worries is that such radicalism could result in more bloodshed in the region. While nations like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have already shuttered their embassies in Baghdad, serious threats might also loom closer to home. One danger is that incensed radicals will strike "soft targets" frequented by Westerners, as happened in last October's Bali attack, which killed 202 Western tourists and Balinese out for the evening in Kuta. "An attack on Iraq could increase terrorist attacks and help give rise to new recruits who may be even more dangerous," warns Ansyaad Mbai, who coordinates the antiterrorism desk of Indonesia's Ministry for Politics and Security.

Heeding such warnings, many tourists are eschewing Asia's once popular resorts, battering tourist-dependent economies like Indonesia and Thailand that were already wounded by the Bali bombings. A war could hurt Asian economies in other ways, too. Many Asian nations count the U.S. as their largest trading partner, and if a war drags on, slumping American demand will drag Asia down with it. The sinking U.S. dollar is exacerbating the problem by driving up the cost of Asian products overseas. Other Asian countries—particularly the Philippines and Pakistan—depend heavily on foreign remittances from workers toiling in the Gulf, many of whom may now be forced to return home. Meanwhile, sharply rising global oil prices—up 20% since the start of the year—are a further economic worry, especially for huge oil importers like Japan and South Korea.

More pressing is the possibility that conflict in the Gulf will shift global attention from regional crises—especially on the Korean peninsula. While the U.S. suspects that Saddam might have nukes, North Korea's Kim Jong Il has already restarted his nuclear program, and he seems bent on exploiting America's unwillingness to confront two global crises at once. In the past two weeks alone, the North Korean military has confronted an American spy plane in midair and has also test-fired a short-range missile. "We are extremely concerned about North Korea becoming a nuclear power," says Lee Tae Sik, South Korea's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "The [North Korea crisis] has to be resolved as soon as possible." That concern reverberates throughout North Asia. "Iraq is so far away that I don't even know where it is on the map," says Kimiko Amari, a 69-year-old janitor in Tokyo. "North Korea is a lot closer to us, and everyone around me is scared of Japan being attacked by North Korea."

Even when America does focus on a geopolitical crisis, some Asians reason, U.S. follow-through has been less than perfect; Afghanistan, after all, is still in shambles and Osama bin Laden remains at large. In recent weeks, Afghan President Hamid Karzai begged Washington not to abandon his beleaguered nation, fearing that its focus on Iraq will sap its enthusiasm for rebuilding last year's battleground. "If the U.S. is perceived to take its eyes off Afghanistan, it will be like opening the door to al-Qaeda," says a senior diplomat based in Kabul. Just two weeks ago, a peacekeeping vehicle was blown up in a Kabul suburb, killing an interpreter, injuring a Dutch soldier and reminding Asians that Afghanistan is still far from peaceful.

For Asia's political leaders, the prospect of a new Gulf war presents a treacherous challenge: they must somehow reconcile the antiwar passions of their own citizens with the necessity of remaining on friendly terms with America—the toughest (and richest) kid on the playground. For now, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi continues to shy away from criticizing Washington's Iraq policy too openly, while pushing behind the scenes for more decisive action on North Korea. But like Tony Blair in Britain, Koizumi's stance doesn't reflect his electorate's views on Iraq, and his popularity is tumbling as a result. The same goes for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has remained one of Washington's most vocal supporters. Arroyo maintains that the link between Iraq and bin Laden is credible, based in part on the expulsion two months ago from Manila of an Iraqi diplomat alleged to have collaborated on an Abu Sayyaf bombing last May of a bar in Zamboanga, in which a U.S. Green Beret died. But many Filipinos disagree with their President, and Arroyo is increasingly isolated back home.

Perhaps the narrowest tightrope is being walked in Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf is facing a tide of anti-American resentment that could potentially topple his pro-U.S. military coalition. In a troubling portent last October, Muslim parties swept into power in Pakistan's parliamentary elections. Their support stemmed in part from anger about the deaths of an estimated 3,000 Afghan civilians in air raids and the arrests of prominent Pakistanis by U.S. and domestic intelligence agents. Frustration with the U.S. runs so high that an antiwar protest in Rawalpindi on March 9 attracted 100,000 people, one of the largest demonstrations Pakistan has ever experienced. "Our nightmare," confides a Pakistani army officer in Islamabad, "is that a violent street confrontation erupts between the security forces and anti-U.S. protesters. I'm not sure that our forces would obey their superiors." Such insubordination could catalyze a groundswell that might eventually sweep Musharraf out of office. Iraq may be far away. But in Asia, nobody is entirely shielded from the collateral damage of this looming war.