SINGAPORE — The United States has been perceived differently by Asian countries since President George W. Bush took over the helm in Washington. Asian governments have noticed a fundamental shift toward a more “unilateralist” stance in U.S. foreign policy — a trend that became even more accentuated after 9/11. In addition, these governments have also seen a strategic shift from the multilateral “economics” approach of the Clinton era to one that is unilateralist and focuses on terrorism.

But since early 2001, Asian governments have differed in their perception of the Bush administration and in their relations with Washington. Traditional allies like Japan and South Korea saw an utmost necessity to accommodate Bush’s strategic shift, whereas a rising China saw the need to “balance” American “unilateralism” with increasing collaboration with Russia under President Vladimir Putin. But Beijing has also made tremendous efforts to normalize its own relations with Washington over the past two years.

Further south, the relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN countries entered a phase of increased uncertainty and complexity in the wake of 9/11 and the Afghan campaign. This is largely due to the Muslim makeup of principal ASEAN members.

Washington and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have remained united against the scourge of international terror, with the establishment of an antiterrorism center in Kuala Lumpur and increased assistance from Washington in this area. However, a U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq could complicate these relations, given the general hostility in the region — especially in its Muslim communities — to such an attack.

Recently two important international surveys highlighted a growing divide between public opinion in many countries and the policies of the Bush administration. A recent poll of 38,000 people in 44 countries, conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in association with the International Herald Tribune, found not only a strong public opposition in Muslim countries toward an eventual war on Iraq, but also a rising anti-American tide. It was generally felt that a war against Iraq would alienate friends, even in non-Muslim countries, worldwide.

In 20 of 27 countries polled, favorable views of the U.S. declined between 1999/2000 and 2002. For example, in South Korea the favorable reading dropped from 58 to 53, and in Japan, from 77 to 72. In Indonesia, the favorable image of the U.S. dropped even more drastically, from 75 to 61. This decline corresponds to a parallel rise in “hatred for America” in Muslim nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

In another survey, the World Economic Forum polled 300 of its current and former Global Leaders of Tomorrow (young movers and shakers from politics, business, academia and the arts) on American influence in a globalizing era. Of the 40 people who responded to the question on whether “a backlash is growing against unilateralism,” 80 percent either fully or partially agreed.

While anti-American sentiment has increased across Southeast Asia, Washington’s relations with Jakarta are the most critical from a regional security perspective.

As the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia is of prime importance to Washington’s current crusade against international terror. The Oct. 12 Bali bomb blast forced Jakarta to admit the existence of terrorism within its borders and to acknowledge the importance of coordinating action against international and “local” terror, notably with the assistance of Washington.

Muslim sentiment in Indonesia has shifted in the last two months toward the moderate center as radical groups have come under pressure or have been disbanded. But it is now feared that U.S. military action against Iraq could radicalize Indonesia’s huge majority of moderate Muslims.

The situation was made worse recently by the “Howard controversy,” sparked when Australian Prime Minister John Howard spoke — probably for domestic consumption — of his country possibly conducting preemptive strikes in neighboring nations if terrorist threats are confirmed to exist on their soil.

Washington, via the comments of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is reported to have backed Howard, to the dismay of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, which were then forced to come out publicly to “defend their sovereignty rights.”

The Malaysian government, which has a huge Muslim populace to contend with, would be especially nervous if antiterror action was taken by Western countries on its territory without its consent or approval. Furthermore, an American military campaign against Iraq would polarize Malaysia’s Muslim population and have dire consequences for Malaysian politics, especially at a time when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is preparing to step down from power next October.

The perception of Washington in Asia, particularly in ASEAN countries, is shifting as the tide of anti-American public opinion there rises. Military action against Iraq would only exacerbate this situation.

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