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"Stability in East Asia in The Wake of The Terrorist Attack"

May 22, 2002

Tan Sri Dr. Noordin Sopiee
Chairman and CEO, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia

It is 8 months and 11 days since September 11. As a matter of ethics and morality, we must condemn the atrocity, as we should condemn all deliberate acts of mass violence targeted against civilians. Whatever the attenuating circumstances, whatever the excuses, whatever the cause, such acts of terrorism should be illegalised by the international community.

This is a matter or ethics and morality. As a matter of ethics and morality, it seems clear enough to me, although not to many people. What the organisers of this Future of Asia Conference want is not our moral and ethical judgements but our analytical, empirical assessments as to the present and future state of peace, stability and security in Northeast and Southeast Asia in the wake of "September 11".

On this, it truly is too early to know all or even most of the global ramifications in the wake of that terrorist attack. Nevertheless, for our region of East Asia it seems safe enough to make several points. I will only make eight.

Point One: To a great extent, the impact of the events of September 11 depends on whether "September 11" was essentially an aberration or whether the United States and perhaps a few countries in Western Europe will face waves of similar terrorist attacks. In other words, was "September 11" similar to most of the period in the Israeli/Palestine area before the first and especially the second Intifada and the waves of Israeli terrorist attacks recently, or is September 11 the opening shot in a drawn-out war of substantial lethality.

Fortunately, the target of such a drawn-out war of such violent intensity will not be any state in East Asia _ unless we act stupidly to bring this about. Its effects will be substantial nevertheless because of what the United States will do and make us do, in a world where America will not deviate from the position (should it come under constant attack) of enforcing the dicktat that "if you are not with us, then you are against us".

On the balance of the evidence, there is every reason today to be cautiously optimistic that September 11 was aberrational and future September 11s will continue to be aberrational.

Point Two: The view that "the world will never be the same again after September 11" is blatantly untrue. It is untrue as far as Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, Australasia are concerned. It is even untrue as far as North America is concerned. The sun continues to rise in the East and set in the West. Sashimi remains uncooked. Shibuya still bustles in the face of a most comfortable recession. Apart from having one's shoes double checked at US airports, it does seem almost as easy to mount terrorist attacks even in the United States, even today

There are very few brave new worlds or blindingly bright new days in international affairs. Fortunately, there are also very few catastrophic events that change everything or most things.

We do well to remember the old French saying: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same, even as we remind ourselves that in our world, as ever, the only constant is change. The present has been, and the future is most likely to be, a compromise between continuity and change.

Point Three: Amongst the potentially very consequential changes has been the trend turnaround in "strategic friction" between the United States and China and the disappearance of China from the US security and defence radar screen. The United States is now no longer "on China's back".

One does not know for how long this will continue. Much will depend on the adeptness of Chinese diplomatic and political policy. Much will depend on events in and impinging upon the United States. But it does seem clear enough that China is no longer in the crosshairs of the gun barrels of the hard American right. This is a most positive security development for East Asia, although once again it has to be stressed that it is difficult to know how long this "stand-down" will last, even though it looks set to go on for some time. Should this be protracted, the strategic implications are of course tremendous.

Point Four: Japan has taken another reasonably small step towards the normal military deployment of its very substantial military assets.

The logistics support role that Japan has played after September 11 and with regard to the war on Afghanistan has not created any substantial negative psychological or political or diplomatic impact within the region or within Japan. Other things being equal, Japan can be expected to trend in the same direction, albeit slowly, in the years to come. Up to now, for those in Japan who wish Japan to develop as a normal military power, it has been "so far so good".

"The War" is more than half a century ago. I do not see any serious problem in this regard in the foreseeable future because the Japan of today is not the Japan of its militarism days and for so long as relations are good between Japan and China.

Southeast Asia would apparently have no problem with Japan as a normal military power for so long as Japan is seen as aligned essentially with Asean's interests.

Point Five: On the basis of current post-September 11 trends, it seems clear also that the United States strategic focus in Asia will continue to shift westwards. Westwards towards West Asia/the Middle East and South Asia, especially the India/Pakistan problematique.

Would this be a net plus or minus for peace, stability and security in East Asia? It may not be all that consequential because the structure of stability and peace in East Asia is far from fragile. This structure is contributed to greatly by the United States but does not require the Americans keeping an ever-open, never-resting eagle eye and actively stepping is as the sheriff or the cavalry of East Asia. It is most unlikely, given the United States' vital interests in the region that its strategic focus shift will result in neglect or disinterest in East Asia. On present and past evidence this seems to be out of the question.

But obviously, should a massive escalation in hostilities come about with regard to Palestine, India-Pakistan, and Iraq, there is every likelihood that the United States will be deeply engaged. (In the case of Iraq, this could mean engagement on the ground in full force). If all these things happen, we will all have to go back to our drawing boards and think all over again. Although, once again, I am having no nightmares.

It does not seem that East Asians are going to lose their minds and their commitment to peace and stability, given that the predominant obsession is with material advancement, given the pattern of reasonable but not crazy tensions, given the reasonable balances of military power and the disincentives to crazypolitics. What has been true for the last two decades looks set to remain true: Despite the important role of the United States, the peace, stability and security of East Asia remain in the hands of the East Asian states and are deeply rooted in their vital interests, their common sense and their pragmatism.

Point Six: I suggested at the start that there is an inherent dilemma with regard to "the global war on terrorism" arising out of the fact that the perpetrators of September 11, who will want to develop a sortie into a sustained war, can be expected to target the United States, and a few countries in Western Europe. Although they may have "a global reach", their targets of attacks will be geographically confined. (Britain should be very exercised and worried but no-one expects Finland, Norway, Sweden and quite a few others to become significant terrorist battle grounds).

There is a similar conundrum for East Asia arising out of the fact that as things stand, none of us are targets for September 11-type terrorist attacks. It is in our obvious vital interest to make sure that we do not become major targets and terrorism battlegrounds. At the same time, we all do have common interests in stopping September 11-type terrorism wherever they occur.

Quite obviously, substantial sophistication will be required of us all in maintaining the global front against September 11-type terrorism.

Point Seven: Whilst we fight the war against specific, targeted terrorist attacks, we must not forget the wider war, which is essentially political, which relies very little on military means, but which has everything to do with winning the hearts, the minds and the soul of people.

This wider, more comprehensive, and (for East Asia) much more important struggle is by no means confined to the states of Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, where Muslims are in the vast majority, or in the majority, or constitute a most important strategic constituency. But within these four states, this wider, more comprehensive struggle for hearts, mind and soul must have a very high priority.

To give a lower priority to this domestic and sub-regional war than the war on "terrorism with a global reach", whose primary targets lie in distant geographies, would be preposterous. Care would need to be taken to ensure that that in prosecuting the war on terrorism with a global reach, we do not do anything to jeopardise the wider, much, much more consequential struggle. It would be the height of stupidity of course to win the war abroad and lose the war at home.

Point Eight: Let me end by returning to one of my central themes: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

As ever, at the interstate level, if we want to continue to enjoy peace, stability and security in our region, we must stick closely to the winning formula that has given us perhaps the most stable and productive peace we have had for a hundred and fifty years. Among the critical elements has been our commitment to the relaxation of tensions... and of course, deep concentration on domestic development.

To deal both with what has been called the "new terrorism" that is not quite that new, and the "old terrorism" that has been around since the beginning of time, it is critically important that we ensure the right domestic development within our own societies.
・We must struggle for minimum levels of social and political justice, even as we try to do our best to maximise the amount of social and political justice;
・We must struggle for dynamic economic growth and the absolute eradication of absolute poverty;
・We must struggle for the maximisation of fundamental human rights;
・We must ensure against the humiliation of any significant sector;
・We must guarantee that no-where is there desperation, the desperation that drives normal human beings to non-human actions;
・We must struggle for the development of productive and stable pluralistic and democratic societies, where there is respect for each individual;
・We must fight for social and spiritual development that calms society and calms the spirit.

The exact priorities and circumstances of each of our societies will of course be different. But as for the general winning formula for the peace, stability and security of East Asia, I believe that it indeed is true: the more things change, the more they do indeed remain the same.

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.