SINGAPORE — The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 was a defining moment for a majority of East Asian countries. It made them more aware of their individual vulnerabilities, and impressed upon them the need for regional stability to ensure continuous economic growth.

In the wake of the crisis, the ASEAN Plus Three group (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea) has grown into a forum of cooperation. The group’s 13 member-nations have initiated a consultative process on economic, financial and social issues, and will likely extend it to cover political and security matters in the future. But three weeks into the war with Iraq, it is timely to ask whether the war in Iraq will adversely affect this vision?

Politically, East Asia appears split down the middle in terms of supporting and opposing the U.S.-led war.

Japan, Singapore and the Philippines, allies of Washington, have given their clear support for military intervention. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that Tokyo would support the allied war based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.

In Singapore, Foreign Minister Shanmugam Jayakumar stated in Parliament that Singapore would support the intervention because of the dangerous specter of suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But he also made it very clear that Singapore was not pro-American, as it had in the past opposed the United States on other issues at the United Nations, particularly those pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Although Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo joined her citizens in calling for peace in Iraq, Manila has clearly come out on Washington’s side due to its own national security interests. Manila receives significant American military assistance in its fight against Muslim rebels in the southern part of the country.

Seoul is in a political bind. As an American ally, it supports Washington, but it must tread carefully. It must contend with the threat posed by North Korea, which is at odds with Washington, as well as with rising South Korean anti-American sentiment.

China is firmly in the antiwar camp. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Beijing has made it clear that it sides with France, Russia and Germany in opposing the use of force against Iraq.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stated his opposition to the U.S.-led military intervention. His government has since been deftly encouraging the Peace Malaysia movement as an “outlet” for Muslim frustration.

Indonesia’s massive Muslim population has put Jakarta in the antiwar camp as well. Two huge Muslim-organizations, the Nadlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have organized massive but peaceful antiwar demonstrations that allow the Muslim population to “let off steam” while preventing radical elements from attempting to organize jihad movements in support of Iraq. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who faces an election next year, has come out clearly against the war but has won praises for keeping antiwar protests from turning violent.

Thailand and the rest of the ASEAN countries fall into a more nuanced, if not ambiguous, position. A massive antiwar protest took place in Bangkok one day after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his key speech to the U.N. Security Council in January. Yet Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stated earlier that Bangkok could, as a matter of principle, allow Washington the use of its air bases and refueling facilities if needed.

Responses to the Iraq war have been low key in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia due to prevailing internal concerns and tight control of public opinion. For its part, Myanmar’s ruling junta, which could one day be a candidate for regime change, has been extremely discreet for fear of arousing U.S. attention.

The Iraq war could test members of ASEAN Plus Three both economically and financially, especially if the conflict is protracted and oil prices drastically increase. It remains to be seen whether budding regional cooperation will suffer if the economic situation deteriorates in East Asia. In this context, several questions can be asked.

First, would oil or gas-producing nations such as Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia help tide over major oil and gas importers such as Japan, Singapore, Philippines and China should oil prices escalate in the next few months.

Second, would economic cooperation in trade and investment bolster the economies of East Asia? East Asian regional trade has been on a rise, and the war in Iraq should give it a further boost.

Third, would financial agreements made under the Chiang Mai Initiative be put into practice if East Asian countries face liquidity problems as a result of the Iraq war?

Finally, East Asian countries have started to calculate the impact of the Iraq war on the North Korean crisis. As a member of the “axis of evil,” Pyongyang could be Washington’s next target. Such a conflict would have a tremendous impact on nations in the region.

Although the situations regarding Iraq and North Korea differ in many ways, Tokyo’s unequivocal support for Washington over Iraq as well as Seoul’s hedging on the war has been greatly influenced by the Pyongyang problem, as have been the views of Beijing and Moscow.

The Iraq war is widely perceived to be an “Islamic cause” by ASEAN countries with large Muslim populations. However, Pyongyang could pose a real dilemma for them should North Korean leader Kim Jong Il use his nuclear threat to force Washington’s hand on the issue of bilateral talks.

For these reasons, ASEAN Plus Three could be in for a difficult and trying period. Politically, the forum’s members are split over the U.S. military intervention. Economically, it remains yet to be seen if it can pass the teething test of economic cooperation during a time of such adversity.

However, the biggest test yet for ASEAN Plus Three will probably come when the Iraq War is over and the focus switches to the Korean crisis. ASEAN Plus Three would potentially then have to deal with the threat posed by nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction on its own doorstep.

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