SINGAPORE — As the world awaits the outcome of another report by United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, and perhaps a second resolution (following U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441), war drums are beating ever louder in the United States, Britain and some allied nations.
War on Iraq would have at least a fivefold impact on Southeast Asia:
* Anti-American and anti-Western sentiment would inevitably rise, especially in the region’s Muslim countries.
According to recent Pew and World Economic Forum surveys, anti-Americanism and expressed hatred of the U.S. have risen across the world. In Indonesia, there has been a 14-point drop in the number of people expressing favorable views of the U.S. over the past two years. If war breaks out against Iraq, even with a Security Council mandate, anti-Americanism in Malaysia and Indonesia will mesh with rising antiwar sentiment, as was the case in Bangkok on Feb. 6, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the Security Council in New York. ASEAN governments would then need to balance their public condemnation of Western military action with their requests for U.S. support in their own fight against terrorism.
* Domestic politics in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Brunei may become more volatile, given growing anti-American and antiwar sentiments in these countries. Islamic opposition parties and organizations in Malaysia and Indonesia could exert pressures on their governments to more strongly condemn Washington, London and Canberra, helping to fuel the growth of a more radical form of political Islam.
War in Iraq could polarize moderate Muslims, making them more openly critical of Washington and its allies, and perhaps more supportive of a call for jihad against the West. Moderate sentiment against Islamic extremism, which grew, for example, in Indonesia after the Oct. 12 Bali bomb blasts, could be undermined.
* The rise of anti-Americanism and the volatility of domestic politics in Southeast Asian countries may lead to more acts of terrorism in the region. Local Muslim groups would clamor for justice against the spilling of Muslim blood by Western powers in Iraq, and might even form stronger links with Middle Eastern terrorist groups for the purpose of wreaking havoc in the region.
ASEAN governments would then be put on the defensive — especially if local groups and opposition forces grew radical and began harassing them — thus complicating the fight against terrorism and efforts to dismantle regional terror networks. Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia would be the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
* Southeast Asian countries are concerned that an American strike may occur closer to home if the U.S. decides to take on North Korea once the campaign against Iraq concludes. Although the U.S. faces greater geostrategic and geopolitical constraints in the case of North Korea (South Korean and Japanese concerns, and the proximity of China and Russia) than it does in Iraq, Asians still fear a nuclear nightmare unfolding on their soil.
A recent statement by Australian Prime Minister John Howard in which he raised the possibility of Australia launching preemptive strikes on terrorist groups in neighboring countries has raised the specter of “Western intervention” in Southeast Asian countries in the name of fighting international terror. Howard’s words have been perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of ASEAN countries.
* Strong fear exists that Southeast Asia’s economic recovery could be seriously compromised by war in Iraq, especially if the conflict is drawn out. Oil prices would spike and global consumer confidence would drop, having a negative affect on ASEAN exports. Corporate confidence worldwide has already plunged in the past few months. Renewed stock market jitters would further slow world economic growth.
Furthermore, ASEAN countries, especially the Philippines and Thailand, would probably incur substantial costs if they have to repatriate nationals from the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East.
A slowing of economic growth could have serious negative repercussions on the social fabric and on political transitions taking place in most ASEAN countries. For example, key elections are set for Indonesia and the Philippines in 2004.
It is clear that war on Iraq would raise serious concerns and fears in many Southeast Asian countries, having an impact on domestic politics ranging from the rise of political Islam to a sharp increase in anti-Americanism and antiwar sentiments. War could also foster acts of terror that have the potential to destabilize some ASEAN governments.
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