Terror-preemption talk roils Asia

Malaysia threatens to break off antiterror cooperation in the wake of Australia's tough rhetoric.

Work with us. Or else.

That's the message Asian governments say they're getting from the United States and its closest allies in the war against terrorism.

But Asian resentment was stirred anew this week by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who said that Australia might use force in neighboring countries to stem terrorist threats - whether the host countries agree or not.

"It stands to reason that if you believe that somebody was going to launch an attack on your country ... and you had a capacity to stop it, and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity, then of course you would have to use it," Mr. Howard said on Sunday on Australia's Channel 9.

He also proposed amending the United Nations Charter to allow countries to take preemptive military action against perceived threats, following the new US security strategy outlined by President George Bush in September.

Howard's comments have created a regional uproar, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines all condemning Howard's echo of the emerging US "preemption" doctrine as a threat to their sovereignty.

Yesterday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed threatened to break off counterterrorism cooperation with Australia. And Philippines Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said earlier that "this proposal has no ghost of a chance to be supported in the UN General Assembly."

Though Australia has been quick to promise that it isn't contemplating action - such as the assassination of an alleged Al Qaeda operative in Yemen with an unmanned Predator drone by the US last month - anger has been rising among Southeast Asian countries.

Observers say that the growing hostility could harm the US and its coalition's ability to deepen its military relationships and intelligence sharing in the region, hindering the global terror fight.

"Of course the type of resentment these statements stir hurt relationships and make cooperation more difficult,'' says Ralf Emmers, a specialist in regional political and security affairs at Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies. "The principal of national sovereignty isn't just important to Asia; it's a basic principal of the UN."

While the October bombing in Bali that killed some 175 people - the most devastating global terrorist attack since Sept. 11 - has left Asian governments more willing to work with the US, there has also been growing anger at perceived US unilateralism. Australia is acting as a lightning rod for much of the Asian resentment, as it is the region's biggest cheerleader for the preemption doctrine.

Concerns about unilateral US action aren't solely confined to Asia. In Turkey, US efforts to negotiate overflight rights and other military assistance for a potential war against Iraq have been slowed by public anger at the US.

Still, US security cooperation within Asia remains at perhaps its highest point since the end of the cold war. US troops are gearing up for their third training mission in the Philippines in a year; in August, the US signed a pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to strengthen intelligence sharing; and Malaysia has agreed to a US proposal to open a counterterrorism center in Kuala Lumpur.

Just how the antiterror center in Malaysia will work has yet to be determined. When Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed it in July, it was envisioned as a clearing house for intelligence gathered by Southeast Asian governments as they pursue regional groups with ties to Al Qaeda.

Though the center has been agreed upon, there have been signs of cooling Malaysian interest since members of the domestic Islamic opposition attacked the plan as an infringement on national sovereignty.

Analysts say such arrangements are fragile by nature, particularly in the world of intelligence gathering, where relationships and national sentiment play an important role. In Indonesia, for instance, US and Australian investigators had been getting an unprecedented level of access in recent months.

Indonesia allowed immediate access to Australian investigators after the Bali attack which killed mostly Australian tourists. It was a surprisingly high level of cooperation, since nationalist anger against Australia was stirred after that country led the 1999 peacekeeping effort in the former Indonesian province of East Timor. Just yesterday, Indonesian officials announced the arrest of an alleged top-level member of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al Qaeda-linked group that has been blamed for the Bali bombing.

But diplomats say that Indonesia is now pulling back from allowing more foreign investigators on its soil. And its usually silent President Megawati Sukarnoputri has also taken to making veiled criticisms of the US, particularly over Iraq. "We see how the ambition to conquer other nations has made a situation where there's no peace unless the world complies with the will of the powerful one," she said in a speech at the National Mosque late last month.

Australia has long been America's closest friend in the Pacific. Australian soldiers fought and died alongside Americans in Vietnam, and today, the Australian government is one of the few American allies that has supported the case for war with Iraq.

As a consequence, Asian governments often see Australia as a voice for US interests in the region. Malaysia's government-owned New Straits Times attacked Howard's comments in an editorial on Tuesday titled "Uncle Sam's Foremost Flunky." The editorial alleged that his statement was part of an effort to create "an international legal environment that affords freedom and legitimacy of action for the US and its satellite states such as Australia in the prosecution of the war on terrorism."

Wednesday, Australia called in 10 Southeast Asian ambassadors to stress that there would be no Australian action without consulting the countries first.

Mr. Bush has stood by Australia during the furor. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Monday that the president "supports preemptive action. The president has said that is part of America's doctrine because of the different nature of terrorism."

The US is one of the region's largest donors, and its military commitments remain crucial to maintaining Asia's security balance. "The US is the dominant power on the globe, so governments are more willing to accept preemption when it's coming from the Americans,'' says Mr. Emmers.

Howard has been seen in Asia as too close to the US since 1999, when he said that he saw Australia as a sort of "deputy" to the American global sheriff.

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