Axis of influence

Asian-Pacific states signed up to Bush's war on terror - but they're more interested in trading with China.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bangkok on 20 and 21 October signed up to US President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’, though most are more interested in trading with China.

The attractions of the ‘war on terror’ for East Asian nations are not immediately apparent, since for the most part it focuses world attention on the Middle East, and generates conflict with Muslim populations. President Bush’s State of the Union address in 2002, which named North Korea as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’, was seen as destabilising both North and South of the thirty-eighth parallel.

But the Indonesian and Philippine authorities have realised the advantages of the ‘war on terror’, namely that it legitimates repression of minorities in their large and shaky countries. For these regimes, US guarantees are important. Since 1986, when the USA pulled the rug out from under its long-term ally Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to Indonesian President Soeharto’s resignation under US pressure on 21 May 1998, America’s Cold War allies have been cold-shouldered by their one-time sponsor.

The shift in US policy from sponsoring ‘strong-men’ authoritarian leaders to ‘democratisation’ was profoundly destabilising for the region. Through the self-serving strategy of so-called democratisation, the US undermined the strong-men by sponsoring middle-class opposition groups and national minorities. Separatist movements and oppositional groups were emboldened by Western sympathy. UN sponsorship of East Timor’s independence claim against Indonesia on 15 September 1999 was an example to separatists in Indonesia and the Philippines.

But after 9/11 Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri and Philippine president Gloria Arroyo have embraced the ‘war on terror’ and enjoyed a massive boost in military aid from the USA.

For the Americans, the advantages are clear. One Washington diplomat was quoted as saying: ‘the Americans have been desperate to get back into the Philippines since their armed forces were kicked out of the Clark and Subic Bay bases in 1992’ (1). Cooperation between the USA and Arroyo in the pursuit of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and between Indonesia and Australia in the prosecution of the Bali bomber, have cemented relations between Western and Asian authorities, and muted Western criticism of illiberal policing.

Even Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s denunciation of Jewish world-domination drew a relatively mild rebuke from President Bush. On the other hand, the USA has recently moderated its confrontational stance with North Korea, under pressure from the South not to destabilise the region.

While the USA has advanced in security cooperation, many are less interested in the ‘war on terror’ than jumping on China’s economic bandwagon. Singapore business leader Ho Kwon Ping recently said: ‘The perception is that China is trying to do its best to please, assist, accommodate its neighbours while the United States is perceived as a country involved more and more on its own foreign policy agenda, and strong-arming everyone onto that agenda.’ (2) Ho was talking about China’s proposal for a free-trade agreement with members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Trade with China is of growing importance: China is South Korea’s principle trading partner today, and in 2002 for the first time Japan’s imports from China exceeded those from the USA, as exports there grew by 39 per cent.

One reading of Washington’s emphasis upon security in East Asia is that ‘the US is using the war against terror to establish new bases around China, its emerging rival in Asia’ (3). No doubt the Pentagon’s forward-planners have a bias towards shifting hardware into the Pacific, with an eye on China’s strident growth. But it is also the case that America’s relations with China are – as US secretary of state Colin Powell recently said – at their best since Nixon visited Beijing in 1972 (4).

The practical basis of US-Chinese cooperation is the continuing role of America as a buyer of last resort for Chinese and other Asian surpluses, and the credit that East Asia extends to the USA in return, that finances the US deficit. In 2002 China’s trade surplus with America was $103billion, while it lent around $150billion to the USA (5). America’s ambitions to make China a regional partner are a pragmatic recognition that China’s influence is growing, whatever Washington thinks of it.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Terror

(1) ‘Challenge in the East’, Andrew Murray, Guardian, 30 January 2002

(2) New York Times, 18 October 2003

(3) ‘Challenge in the East’, Andrew Murray, Guardian, 30 January 2002

(4) New York Times, 17 October 2003

(5) ‘The stealth normalization of US-China relations’, David M Lampton, National Interest, Fall 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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