Asian forces in Iraq signal global shift

James Baker, as a United States special envoy, is wrapping up a trip to Japan and China to discuss with leaders there strategies to reduce Iraq's official debt. It is high time that US policymakers and pundits recognize that the center of economic gravity is shifting away from Europe.

While transatlantic partnerships remain important, US allies in Asia - especially Japan and South Korea - are becoming increasingly more important players in the search for global stability.

Given historical links and ancestral ties for the majority of its citizens, US foreign policies have long reflected a distinct Eurocentricity. The political browbeating over the rift between the US, France, and Germany on the eve of the Iraq war illustrates this.

But the worries over unpleasant exchanges with France and Germany overshadowed the fact that many other European countries had joined the "coalition of the willing." Besides the 12,000 troops from Britain, other Europeans that contributed to the multinational force include Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Spain, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. And logistical support is provided by Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal.

Yet, while editorial writers and politicians anguished over the Bush administration's insensitivities toward the French and the Germans, US allies in Asia were stepping up to the plate.

In particular, the democratically elected governments of both Japan and South Korea have been generally supportive of US policy in Iraq and have pledged materiel and manpower to join coalition forces. Indeed, Japan pledged active involvement in the Paris Club, the informal group of official creditors studying ways to reduce Iraq's debt, before Mr. Baker even left on his trip last week. In another sign of solidarity, Japan is likely to forgive up to two-thirds of the $4 billion Iraq owes Japan. And Tokyo has offered $5 billion for reconstruction in Iraq.

In the cases of Japan and Korea, their decisions to support US efforts in Iraq came despite the fact that several Japanese diplomats and South Korean reconstruction engineers were gunned down this fall by Iraqi guerrilla forces in separate attacks. The two countries remained firm in their commitment of support in the face of considerable pressure from protestors urging their governments to avoid further entanglement in Iraq.

From an economic standpoint, Japan contributes significantly more than either Germany or France respectively. But even when the GDP of the two European powerhouses is combined ($3.7 trillion), it is only a smidgen more than is Japan ($3.55 trillion). Adding South Korea's GDP ($931 billion) to Japan's means that together they are significantly more important as economic forces than the European counterparts.

It is also true that Japan's population (127 million) is larger than either France's (60 million) or Germany's (82 million). The combined population of Korea and Japan represents a larger mass of humanity than the total of France and Germany.

For its part, Seoul finalized a plan to send an additional 3,000-strong contingent to Iraq to help US-led reconstruction projects. Although the plan must await approval by parliament, such actions seems likely because a multiparty consensus has been reached on the commitment and the troops are expected to arrive in March or April of 2004.

As it is, South Korea already has 700 medics and military engineers stationed in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. Half of the new Republic of Korea force will be combatants from its Special Forces Command and Marine Corps. And there will be an additional 100 civilians included.

In the case of Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi authorized sending Self- Defense Forces (SDF) units to Iraq, the first Japanese troops sent to a nation effectively at war. Polls indicate that about 63 percent of Japanese citizens support the decision. It is expected that at least 600 SDF troops will be deployed in late February to engage in reconstruction efforts in "noncombat areas" to avoid violating Japan's pacifist constitution. (But the SDF will be heavily armed and able to defend themselves.)

Other Asian countries have also contributed to the efforts in Iraq. Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines each sent several hundred of their military and police personnel. Although these are not large commitments of manpower, they are an important show of solidarity with the US-led coalition efforts to rebuild a democratic Iraq.

It appears that France and Germany allowed local politics to stand in the way of an opportunity to take principled actions to thwart despotism and terrorism.

But the positions of the Europeans who opposed coalition actions in Iraq shouldn't have been given so much weight. It was an unnecessary slight to those Asian countries who did choose to stand up and offer their support - and who were widely ignored by the US and European media.

Christopher Lingle is professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala and Global Strategist for eConoLytics.com.

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