Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Iraq war sharpens the ASEAN divide, threatens solidarity

Lee Kim Chew, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

Like the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is deeply divided over America's war against Iraq and the 10-member grouping will have to grapple with the fallout.

While the changes in relations among ASEAN countries will not be as drastic as that expected in the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the divisions could become sharper and more pronounced.

Is ASEAN solidarity a lost cause? Maybe.

The new tensions may impede cooperation in the regional grouping, now that the hostilities in Iraq have polarized ASEAN states into pro-war and anti-war camps. The war will also affect ASEAN members' relations with the United States and Australia.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's criticisms of American policy provide a sharp contrast to Singapore's support for the Bush administration's move to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

Thus far, there is no sign that the differences within ASEAN have adversely affected the collaboration among the region's security agencies to combat terrorism. But will these complicate outstanding problems, such as the spat between Singapore and Malaysia on bilateral issues?

If nothing else, the differences over America's military action against Iraq add to the bad vibes. Malaysia has turned down an invitation from Thailand to take part in this year's Cobra Gold military exercises with the U.S. and Singapore. Clearly, this is a spillover of Dr Mahathir's pique.

In any case, the issue that divides -- the legality of America's war against Iraq, which has provoked contentious debate in the United Nations -- will not go away.

This issue is not just about the Bush administration's unilateralism. The controversy is also about America's pre- eminence as the world's sole superpower and how each ASEAN country wants to conduct relations with it.

Dr Mahathir knows U.S. businesses may now shun Malaysia because of his strong anti-U.S. stance, just as the French and Germans are bracing for Washington's retaliation against their economic interests.

Indonesia is a different story. Despite Jakarta's opposition to the war, the U.S. has been careful not to do anything to rattle President Megawati Soekarnoputri's presidency, for fear of giving the Islamic radicals more ground to stoke up anti-U.S. feelings.

Indonesia's touchy relations with Australia are another matter. Both countries are on opposite sides of the fence. Indeed, Jakarta's anger at Canberra's role in East Timor's breakaway has never really subsided. The sore feelings have been aggravated by Prime Minister John Howard's ambition to make Australia the region's deputy sheriff.

All told, the political impact of America's war in Iraq has been negative for ASEAN. This is especially bad for a grouping that has been floundering since the 1997 Asian financial crisis devastated the region's economies. A diverse entity that operates on consensus, ASEAN's inability to act as a cohesive group is now a rule rather than an exception.

The lack of regional solidarity will not cause ASEAN's break- up, but it could lead to the growth of a sub-group within the grouping. The Indochina countries -- Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos -- may coalesce because of political and geographic affinities, to augment their bargaining power.

As things stand, the wealth gap in ASEAN is a stark reminder that it is, in fact, a two-tier grouping of the haves and have- nots in Southeast Asia.

In the good old days when ASEAN was smaller and its relations less complicated, the five founding members -- Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines -- found it easier to work closely together whenever their political interests converged.

This they did with great effect at the United Nations to oppose Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. ASEAN solidarity then strengthened the grouping and enhanced its diplomatic clout. The five countries also collaborated when their economic interests were threatened, as they did to blunt Australia's protectionist civil aviation policy in the early 1980s.

These days, it is hard to find an issue on which all 10 ASEAN members can rally together to make common cause.