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Asia, Far From Kosovo, Takes Sides

Foreign policy: China and North Korea oppose NATO, but nations with simmering ethnic instabilities root for the U.S.

April 07, 1999|Tom Plate

Even in the best of times, Asia is divided by ethnic and class divisions and political allegiances. But the U.S.-led intervention in the Balkans is starting to make it the worst of times for the region's cohesion. Disturbingly, China sides with Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. This will not do wonders for China's image in America, or for this week's U.S. visit by Premier Zhu Rongji. Zhu has demanded an immediate halt to the NATO action. But he's not the only one in the region voicing a strong opinion. Half the region worries that America, if it fails its mission, will become a disabled superpower--an uncertain trumpet of geopolitical stability. The other half chafes that it will succeed and emerge an ever more potent power and hegemonic enforcer.

For Asians, there is an additional worry. They know that they face Kosovo-like implosions of their own. Muslems on China's western edge agitate for separation; Indonesia, a shaky archipelago of thousands of islands and many anxious ethnicities, totters toward disintegration as its economy sinks into the Indian Ocean.

President Clinton's stance has attracted Asian support that might surprise many Americans. Singapore, next door to Indonesia, is rooting loudly for a firm U.S. showing in Yugoslavia. This island city-state manages to maintain excellent relations with China, but it is not anti-American. It appreciates well the stakes in Kosovo. Felix Soh, foreign editor of the Straits Times, Singapore's leading newspaper, says the Balkans may be far from Asia, but Kosovo "brings into sharp focus the horrors that could engulf Asia if ethnic and religious strife unleashed by the breakdown of the region's economic, social and political order is not contained. . . . Considering what a melting pot of ethnicity Indonesia is, we cannot be complacent about the situation there. The most unequivocal of signals must be sent to the Serbs and other brutal regimes that the international community would not sit by idly . . . as acts against humanity are being committed."

War creates strange alliances. Neighboring Malaysia, so often testily at odds with Singapore, and America, is rooting for U.S. victory. In the Kosovo cleansing, they see a Muslim survival issue. "Muslims cannot and must not allow another repeat of Bosnia," writes Malaysia's Idris Salim in the New Straits Times. Only New Zealand and Australia are equally unequivocal. "History has told us," said Australian Prime Minister John Howard, "that if you sit by and do nothing, you pay a much greater price later on." Sounds comfortingly like the voice of a genuine U.S. ally.

Japan tries not to sound an uncertain trumpet, but flat-out, national unity support for the U.S. is beyond its cultural ken. Tokyo is caught between the twin tugs of postwar pacifism and its need for U.S. alliance. While officially supporting the Clinton administration--Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi forthrightly termed the NATO strikes "an unavoidable step to prevent a humanitarian atrocity"--major Japanese commentators, reflecting unexpressed doubts in the government, question not only the intervention's legality under international law but its ultimate effectiveness. Much of the rest of Asia was even less sympathetic. For instance, many in India, perhaps still smarting from Washington's condemnation of its nuclear tests, were almost China-like in opposition. "The U.S. and its docile instrumentality, NATO, can today wage wars of intervention against any other nation which has no long-range missile and nuclear capability," wrote the establishment Times of India.

Tellingly, Chinese ally North Korea was particularly unhinged by Balkan developments. The Clinton-ordered bombings compelled Pyongyang to whisper to Russian officials that it was dealing with a new Hitler determined to conquer the entire world, according to intelligence sources. North Korea may try to use Kosovo to accelerate its missile and military programs; it also clearly wants the myth of American invincibility to be destroyed.

The rooting interest of the North Korean government is itself reason enough to pray fervently that America does not falter in the Balkans. Every American--and most Asians--should wish the U.S. success.

Times contributing editor Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. He can be reached by e-mail at

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