Concern over US-Asean ties

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 11 May 2003

By Johan Fernandez

SOUTH-EAST Asia has often been compared to the Balkans of Europe. It has perhaps greater diversity of race, language, culture and religion than Europe itself. 

Against this backdrop of diversity in views, issues and relations, cooperation among Asean member countries continue to be close and strong. 

This was clearly demonstrated recently when countries in the region and China got together in Bangkok to discuss and respond to the SARS crisis. 

Yet different views surfaced when Permanent Representatives to the United Nations of four Asean nations – Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines – met for a roundtable breakfast talk on the many complex issues that have emerged as a result of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” 

Singapore and the Philippines came out in support of the US while Malaysia and Indonesia opposed military action. All four countries have Muslim citizens who have been critical of Washington’s policies in the Middle East. 

The panel, moderated by Dr Clifton R. Wharton Jr, former Deputy Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, comprised Malaysia’s Ambassador to the UN Datuk Rastam Mohd Isa, Indonesian Permanent Representative M. Slamet Hidayat, Permanent Representative of the Philippines Enrique Manalo, and Singapore’s Permanent Representative Kishore Mahbubani. 

Rastam said Malaysia’s position was clear and consistent even before the war and it had tried to get all the parties involved to avert war. 

“This does not mean that we are against the people of the United States or against their government. We are against the policy that sidelined the multilateral approach to solving the problem.” 

He said all were aware that the war had been planned before September 2002 when President George W. Bush addressed the UN. 

There was a lot of talk of a regime change in Iraq – that was the motive of the war, he added. 

Rastam said what was important now was to look ahead to the future of Iraq where the UN should have a central role. 

He said a government should be set up in Iraq, whether a transitional one or one elected by the people, that should one day gain legitimacy through the UN. 

“The government will have to find its seat in the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, the IMF and other world organisations. 

“There must be efforts to ensure that this government reflects the will of the Iraqi people,” he said. 

Another issue that needed serious attention was resolving the Palestinian issue which “we believe is the cause for terrorism in the region.”  

“We hope that the road map will lead to a durable and permanent solution to the Palestinian question. We hope the creation of the Palestinian state will bring peace to Palestine and Israel and between Israel and its Arab neighbours.” 

Rastam said Malaysia was concerned over the attention Washington was giving to other issues. 

“This raises the question of pre-emption and the use of unilateral action.  

“The fact that Iran was placed together with North Korea and Iraq as members of the “axis of evil” gives the impression that there is a possibility Iran or North Korea could be the next targets. 

“Malaysia is concerned over this doctrine of pre-emption. Here we have a nation that is very powerful and highly respected but at the same time has shown it is willing to use its power against others that it feels threatens its security.” 

Singapore’s Mahbubani felt that the Iraq situation could not be used as a model for future pre-emptive action.  

He said he believed that the US Government would proceed cautiously in many areas when dealing with other countries. 

A good example, he said, was North Korea where the administration had said it would choose a diplomatic route. 

Mahbubani said the lasting consequence of the Iraq war was it convinced terrorists around the world there was no place they could hide. 

He also said the war had divided the Security Council and brought the UN to one of its lowest points in its history. 

“Who decides when the use of force is justified or not justified? The war on Iraq has triggered this debate,” he said. 

Mahbubani said the UN was put on a collision course with the world’s only superpower. 

He said the UN now faced its biggest test and challenge; its members had to find a solution, on the one hand to preserve the principles of the UN Charter and the other to ensure they did not aggravate the UN-US situation. 

“We have to find a way to bring the two sides together,” he added. 

Slamet said Indonesia had been very critical of the US-led invasion because the unilateral action was against the principles of international law and the UN Charter. 

It also feared that the war would have negative political and economic impact on Indonesia and the world. 

“However, differences of opinion did not damage or destabilise relations among Asean countries. This is due to a culture of ‘agree to disagree' and the region's common stand against weapons of mass destruction and upholding the purpose and principles of the UN.” 

Manalo said many nations might now have to rethink their relations with the US, being the only superpower.  

“Nations need the US on their side or at least a sympathetic ear for their problems.” 

He said the doctrine of preventive action and all that it implies in settling disputes was an issue that countries had to address. 

He also said that in future, the US could bypass the UN in matters it believed affected the country’s security directly. 

“In many ways, the debate on the second resolution at the Security Council was actually a referendum of US power versus the council's role in addressing security issues.” 

Whatever damage done would take time to heal, he added. 


  • Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: )  

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