Terror dividend for Southeast Asia

Yesterday's annual ASEAN meeting, attended by Colin Powell, led to a new antiterror declaration.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's swing through Southeast Asia this week has been all about terror.

Mr. Powell thanked Thailand Monday for "fighting with us in the campaign against terrorism." In Malaysia Tuesday, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid told reporters after meeting Powell that the two countries were working "effectively and strongly" on counterterrorism.

Wednesday in Brunei, Powell and the foreign ministers of 10 Southeast Asian nations agreed to increase antiterrorist cooperation through information-sharing between national intelligence agencies and stopping terrorist money laundering and funds transfers.

Powell's rigorous focus on the antiterror message is a sign of how much the bilateral equation has changed for Southeast Asia since Sept. 11. In short, it's been a great war for the region: US criticism of human rights records and demands for economic reforms have been muted. And military and financial aid have increased.

Instead, the Bush administration's foreign policy blueprint is starting to look a lot like American policy during the cold war, when staunch anticommunist allies such as Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand received US assistance with little interference in their internal affairs.

"Sept. 11 put Southeast Asia back on the map," says Ralf Emmers, a political scientist at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "The feeling is that the fight against terrorism is really the main concern in Washington right now. They've set a lot of those other issues aside.''

Powell has told regional leaders that the US is making a greater military commitment to Southeast Asia, something that pleases countries like Singapore and the Philippines, which see the US as a strategic counterbalance to China's rising economic and military might.

After the attacks, it was inevitable that US attention would shift here. The region is home to a third of the world's Muslims. While Southeast Asia practices a mostly tolerant and inclusive brand of the religion, there are also militant groups with links to Al Qaeda.

Late last year, Singaporean and Malaysian officials arrested members of Al Qaeda sleeper cells plotting to blow up the US Embassy and other western targets in Singapore. US and regional intelligence officials have also uncovered the trail of Al Qaeda agents in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Bush administration's response has been to beef up military ties and sign intelligence-sharing agreements, particularly with its old allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Wednesday's meeting, which continued Thursday, was the annual conference between the group's 10 foreign ministers and 13 other Pacific powers, including China and Russia. In addition to information-sharing, the new document pledges signatories to doing a better job of tracking down Al Qaeda bank accounts, and cracking down on lax immigration enforcement that has made for porous borders.

However, it is nonbinding, and regional analysts say what happens on the sidelines is often more important than the official agenda. Wednesday, for example, Powell had coffee with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun. The first high-level contact between the two countries since Bush came to power has nudged the governments closer to reopening dialogue on weapons control.

Perhaps the biggest winner of the new US approach to Southeast Asia has been Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. The Bush administration is currently pushing to restore ties with the Indonesian military that were cut off by Congress in 1999 because of concern over human rights violations in independence-seeking East Timor.

"If Secretary Powell goes ahead, the United States will strengthen the military at the expense of civilian institutions and send the wrong signal to Indonesia's leaders," said Mike Jendrzejczyk at Human Rights Watch in Washington in a statement on Powell's visit. The administration is currently proposing a package of training measures for both the Indonesian military and police. This year, a Pakistani and Kuwaiti who the US alleges are Al Qaeda agents were secretly deported by Indonesia's security services at the request of the CIA, and US officials say they want to reward Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri for these and other unspecified incidents of assistance.

"They have been cooperating more fully with us as time goes by, and I'm quite sure that Mrs. Megawati is committed to this cause,'' Powell told reporters in Singapore on Tuesday. On Friday, he flies to Jakarta to meet with Megawati.

Ties with Malaysia have also warmed considerably. Bilateral relations plunged after the 1999 sodomy and corruption conviction of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad's political rival Anwar Ibrahim in what US officials said was an irregular trial.

But now even the fiery Mr. Mahathir has lined up behind the antiterror agenda, jailing dozens of alleged militants under the country's draconian Internal Security Act. Earlier this year, he was rewarded with his first visit to the White House in more than a decade.

Fear of militant Islam in Malaysia, stirred up by the terror war, has also helped Mahathir sideline domestic Islamic political opposition. Opponents have alleged that he's used the terror sweeps to round up legitimate political activists. Mr. Emmers says such issues, though touched on during Powell's visit, have been getting much less emphasis from the US.

In the Philippines, Powell's last stop in Southeast Asia, the US just finished its first full military deployment in the war on terror outside of Afghanistan. The six-month training mission in that country's south has helped Filipino forces nearly wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang with historic ties to Al Qaeda. In all, Philippine's President Gloria Arroyo has secured $100 million in US military aid this year – the first to its former colony since the Philippines voted to close US bases in the early 1990s.

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