Terror-Preemption Talk Roils Asia ; Malaysia Threatens to Break off Antiterror Cooperation in the Wake of Australia's Tough Rhetoric

By Murphy, Dan | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Terror-Preemption Talk Roils Asia ; Malaysia Threatens to Break off Antiterror Cooperation in the Wake of Australia's Tough Rhetoric


Murphy, Dan, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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