In geopolitics, US shifts to Asia

A Defense Department review, released yesterday, calls for moving military assets to new troublespots.

Driven by US resolve to deal with terror, the geopolitical map of Asia is fundamentally shifting. Crucial Asian fault lines between secular and religious views, elites versus the poor, and regional power relations and interests, are all suddenly being tested.

Asian military budgets will likely increase. Local Muslim-identity movements from Pakistan to Indonesia are stirring. As US-led coalition forces mobilize for a borderless war like no other in memory, lights are burning late in Asian foreign ministries and security agencies. Underscoring US concern about instability in a region that spans half the globe, a Defense Department review - scheduled for release even before the Sept. 11 attacks - called yesterday for a shift of US military assets and resources from Europe to the Asian theater.

"Asian cornerstones will change," says Wang Yizhou, deputy director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics in Beijing. "Pakistan and Afghanistan will more and more be the focus of international attention. This will produce major consequences in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia may be trouble spots. The Asian landscape of power relations will have to adjust. America will be a new partner in the Central Asian opera, and China and Russia will have to rethink."

The stakes are high - and complex. Will the US response bring benefits - greater stability in Asia, the possibility of better US-China relations, hope for dealing with disputes like Kashmir? Will it rather ignite grievances in the streets and mosques that will unravel states? Or will America's shift from Europe to the Pacific mainly result in a hardening of military and state power that will crush opposition groups, of all kinds, with impunity?

For now, Pakistan is at the epicenter of the shift. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is trying to reverse overnight a seven-year policy to aid and support the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. (Pakistan, through its ISI security services, helped create the Taliban.)

Yesterday, in a BBC interview, President Musharraf was asked if the Taliban's days were numbered. "It appears so," he replied.

Musharraf agreed to side with the US, partly to remove Pakistan from years of US sanctions and overall diplomatic isolation. The result will be more US presence in Central Asia and closer ties to Islamabad, a key ally of China. This change is already a disappointment to archrival India, which was cultivating a "special relationship" with the US.

Yet Musharraf faces a host of Islamic militant groups that are not only pro-Taliban, but are also devoted to a jihad, or holy war, in the Kashmir Valley that Musharraf himself supported. The militants, and many ordinary Pakistanis, do not always make distinctions between support for the Taliban and support for Kashmir.

"For Pakistan, this is an opportunity to get the country back on track, to perform economically, to control the Islamist groups," says Ayesha Jalal, a MacArthur Fellow at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "The disaster scenario is that Pakistan is thrown into crisis, there is civil war, and the Army cracks."

"It will matter to Afghans if Pakistan supports the US," says Syed Kabir Ali Wasti, president of the Pakistan Muslim League. "Afghans don't care if NATO, the UN, or India support the US. But if their neighbors, their friends, a Muslim nation, supports America, that means something different."

Not all Asia's changes are happening at the epicenter of the war on terrorism. Japan, for example, for the first time since World War II, is considering a move to send an Aegis-equipped destroyer to back the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. The proposal, backed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, could boost a nascent effort by the US and some Asian elites to forward a "NATO of the East" that would include South Korea, Japan, Australia, the US, Singapore, and, indirectly, Taiwan.

"What Japan is doing is a huge leap," says Derek Mitchell, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "This is actually assisting the US in a military operation outside East Asia. It is a step toward collective self-defense."

Russian cooperation with the US could bring a symbolic as well as tangible end to the cold war - at the expense of separatist rebels in Chechnya. Both China and Russia would greatly benefit, in their strategic view, from a US-led operation that halted the spread of militant Islam to their borders.

Yet while quietly supporting the US, the Chinese are worried that, should the US war result in mass uprisings, China could be targeted by radicals in its Uighur Muslim population in the border province of Xinjiang. China has attempted for years to undermine Uighur separatist movements. It has conducted a policy of economic "engagement" with the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan - while at the same time using a forum called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to coordinate "antiterrorist" efforts on its border.

"China wants a low profile," says Dr. Wang, "China doesn't want to be the focus of trouble between China and the Muslim world."

Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, will figure more prominently in US policy as places where traditionally moderate Muslim populations are being infused by new militants. "The key country is Indonesia," says Derek Mitchell of CSIS. "There are radical elements there, but it is also a potential opportunity as a place where moderate Islam can flourish."

The region's developing cultural divides are illustrated by violence in the runup to yesterday's general elections in Bangladesh. In recent years, the social order has been effected by harder-line, Taliban-inspired groups that decry the more-tolerant Bengali Muslim approach to life. They have attacked - sometimes violently - secular aid groups that help women and provide food and education.

The campaign has been the most violent in Bangladesh's 30-year history, claiming 150 lives in the past month. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party has opposed development of extremist groups. Her traditional rival - Begum Khaleda Zia of the Nationalist Party - has not.

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