Dec 5, 2008

World - East Asia and a ‘vulnerable’ rising power

P. S. Suryanarayana

Several East Asian countries, not immune to terror concerns, want to engage India to draw lessons from its latest tragedy in Mumbai.

For long, the tendency of policy-planners in several East Asian countries was to gloss over the frequent terrorist strikes in India

The death of at least five East Asians at the hands of terrorists has caused unease across the region

Official India, in its current posture as a United States-friendly power, has often been seen across East Asia as a potential player of considerable consequence to the region’s varied interests. However, the latest attacks in Mumbai, with their perceived link to the signature tactics of Pakistan-based international terrorists, have brought India’s ‘vulnerability’ as a rising power into sharp focus.

Not only that. The death of at least five East Asians – a Japanese businessman, an Australian, a Singaporean, a Thai national, and a Malaysian — at the hands of these terrorists has also caused unease across this vast region of much diversity. And, significantly, the geopolitical zone of East Asia Summit (EAS) includes India.

For long, the tendency of policy-planners in several East Asian countries was to gloss over the frequent terrorist strikes in India as a localised phenomenon with or without arguable ‘historical’ links to Pakistan or any other South Asian state. However, some East Asian anti-terror experts have now begun to consider the implications of the conspicuous targeting of a few U.S., British, and Israeli nationals by the terrorists, who ‘invaded’ Mumbai for their latest strikes there. Noted, without any conclusions by the regional experts, is the possibility of an Al-Qaeda hand behind these Mumbai attacks.

Shortly after the terrorist blitzkrieg in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Singapore detected the existence of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) as a burgeoning terror-outfit in Southeast Asia. In this sub-region, the JI is now widely suspected to be an Al-Qaeda affiliate, one of whose leaders, a person of Malaysian origin, is said to be still at large.

Unsurprisingly in this overall framework of anti-terror ‘vigil,’ concern grew in pockets of Southeast Asia over certain Indian media reports. A piece of preliminary information was that a ‘Malaysian address’ was suspected to have been cited by some ‘Pakistani’ terrorists to secure accommodation in Mumbai to plot the latest strikes there. Malaysian credit cards were also reported to have been found at a site targeted by those terrorists. Commenting on the totality of this angle, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said: “It is an unsubstantiated claim. We will contact Interpol for confirmation on the matter, and we will issue a follow-up statement. As of now, there is no proof [of any Malaysian link].”

Muslim-majority Indonesia, quick to empathise with India in a public pronouncement, has had a more recent history of being hit by terrorist attacks from radical ‘Islamists.’ And, a few weeks ago, Jakarta executed three men, all Indonesians, convicted for their role in the 2002 terror-bombings in the Hindu-majority resort-island of Bali, which claimed the lives of many foreigners as well, many of them Australians. And, contrary to the fears in a number of quarters, Jakarta has so far managed to prevent any revenge-killings for these executions.

Elsewhere in East Asia, anti-terror issues do not produce the same kind of resonance as in some parts of the sub-region of Southeast Asia, where several ethnic groups actively adhere to different religions in the same social space. This does not, of course, mean that Northeast Asia is altogether immune to terror issues.

China, often seen to have already left India far behind in their economic competition, certainly remains concerned over ‘Islamist terror’ tendencies in a border province that falls in the social shadow of Pakistan. China has some other terror-concerns as well, but it often projects state power at home and abroad with a great deal of national self-assurance.

Japan, which recently entered into ‘a security pact’ with India on a wide range of issues including those relating to terrorism, does have its own anti-terror agenda at home and abroad. While Japan’s domestic concerns in this domain are not akin to India’s, they share a broad worldview on terror issues, although Pakistan does often seek to project its narrative not only in Beijing but also Tokyo. And, it is an open question whether this narrative will at all be compatible with India’s in the light of heightened international focus on Pakistan following the latest Mumbai attacks.

Australia has, in recent years, grown wary of ‘Islamist terror’ following the 2002 Bali bombings. And some time ago, Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told this correspondent in Singapore that his country was keen on engaging India for its anti-terror expertise among other security-related skills.

Overall, a region like East Asia, home to several dynamic economies, often looks beyond the political-security horizon. Unsurprisingly, and even before it became known that a Singaporean woman-lawyer was among those killed by the invading terrorists in Mumbai, the City-State’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, made a definitive comment. Mr. Lee said that the attacks “will have fallout on India’s investment climate and [on the] international confidence [in India] for some time to come.” His reasoning was that India’s “complex environment” was made up of “complicated … politics.” And, India’s racial, religious, and security issues “are difficult to resolve,” he emphasised.

This was, by far, the most forthright comment by any leader from East Asia. The Singaporean woman-lawyer was the City-State’s first-ever victim of a terrorist attack anywhere in the world. And, coincidentally, the City-State is the venue for an ongoing non-official India-Pakistan dialogue, a closed-door Track-II event, which of course was decided upon well before the latest terror strike in Mumbai.

With Singapore having played a crucial role in putting India on the East Asian map, Mr. Lee’s comment can be taken as a well-intentioned plain-speak commentary. On balance, as evident from the comments by regional leaders, several East Asian countries, not immune to terror concerns, want to engage India to draw lessons from its latest tragedy in Mumbai.

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