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Asia Pacific Security Outlook 2002

Regional Overview

In the early aftermath of even the most momentous contemporary events, it is often easy to exaggerate their longer-term significance. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, however, clearly altered the security outlook and agenda for both the region and the world. Many Asian and Pacific countries, including the United States, had been living with domestic and international terrorism for years. Yet, the sheer audacity of a relatively small band of suicidal and lightly armed terrorists attacking the political and financial centers of the world's superpower, the enormity of the civilian casualties, and the visual impact on a worldwide television audience ensured that September 11 would move terrorism to the top of the international security agenda. So, too, did the response of the United States, which immediately declared a "war" against terrorists "of global reach," pledged to be proactive in this campaign, and vowed to judge its relations with other nations on their cooperation. The attacks led to the U.S.-led campaign against the al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the largest U.S. military operation since the Gulf War of 1991-1992.

The Meaning of September 11

Immediate Impacts

The negative impacts of the September 11 attacks are readily identifiable—victims from over 60 countries, a sharp deterioration of the already bleak international economic outlook, fighting and more loss of lives in Afghanistan, and increased tensions and demonstrations in a number of countries, especially in the Muslim world. Yet, there have been some compensating factors. Large power relations improved. Major movement took place in U.S.-Russian relations, and there has also been significant, though less dramatic, change in Sino-U.S. relations. At the multilateral level, the declaration on terrorism at the Shanghai Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting demonstrated a broad regional consensus on this international danger, and the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition is heightening practical cooperation in a variety of areas, including the sharing of intelligence and financial cooperation against illicit money flows. Collaboration and interoperability are being particularly strengthened within the U.S. alliance network, which is still the principal security mechanism in the Asia Pacific region.

September 11 and the response to it may also have had a catalytic effect on some other intractable issues. On the contentious issue of missile defense, the United States and Russia appeared to be seeking a way to bridge differences over how to handle conflicts between the U.S. program and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The United States has tried to become re-engaged in the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. There may also be new international efforts to deal with the Jammu and Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.

However, the September 11 events do not dominate or change all aspects of the regional security landscape. There are strong elements of continuity. The basic security perspectives and problems of many regional countries—including much of mainland Southeast Asia and smaller countries such as Mongolia and Papua New Guinea—have not been significantly affected. The Chinese government has not interpreted September 11 and its aftermath as requiring a fundamental reappraisal of priorities. Further, the longstanding regional flashpoints—the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea—remain essentially unchanged, and any of them could reemerge as a serious threat to regional stability.

In other cases, the events of September 11 and their aftermath may have compounded preexisting problems. The new circumstances are particularly hard on weak states with large Muslim populations and new and/or weak leadership, such as Indonesia and Pakistan. In Indonesia, the campaign in Afghanistan exacerbated internal political divisions and complicated the effort of new president Megawati Sukarnoputri to consolidate her position. Further, altered priorities for international assistance may reduce levels of support for Indonesia's already battered economy. Neighboring Malaysia, though, with its strong government and large non-Islamic minorities provides a stark contrast. Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed's domestic position was actually strengthened when his main political rivals in the conservative and Islamic PAS (Party Islam SeMalaysia) appeared ambivalent toward terrorism.

After Afghanistan, Pakistan has so far been the state most significantly affected by the response to September 11. By virtue of its proximity, Pakistan has been intimately involved in developments in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Moreover, Pakistan's own internal politics are complicated and volatile, a situation which has been compounded by the early decision of President Pervez Musharraf to support the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime. Pakistan thus is the major front-line state in the war on terrorism and a major potential victim of its fallout. In the worst-case scenario, internal political chaos and meltdown in Pakistan could put nuclear weapons into the hands of extremists, with incalculable impact on South Asia and the security of the wider region. A detailed examination of Pakistan's circumstances and prospects is beyond the scope of the Asia Pacific Security Outlook, as Pakistan is not a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that defines the geographical scope of this series. However, increased uncertainty and political instability in Pakistan hold the potential to seriously affect the broader Asia Pacific security outlook.

September 11 had a mixed impact on the multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific region. The profile and potential role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) increased, due to SCO's focus on cross-border terrorism. There may be even new room for a cooperative relationship between the SCO and the United States. The APEC forum, which some had feared was losing momentum, has gained new relevance through its consultations on the international effort to combat terrorism at the Shanghai meetings. The subsequent heads of government declaration on terrorism highlighted APEC's potential role as a major consultative mechanism for the region to discuss the key political, economic, and security issues of the day.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ARF have not fared as well thus far. ASEAN's effectiveness has been influenced by its expanded membership and leadership turnover among its members. However, the November ASEAN summit meeting did produce confirmation of the group's intention to proceed with the ASEAN Free Trade Area, and it also discussed a proposal by several ASEAN leaders for increased cooperation on anti-terrorism. The ARF--the main security-oriented organization in East Asia--has not found an active role in the anti-terrorism campaign to date.


Asked to assess public opinion in their countries on the September 11 attacks and aftermath, the Outlook 2002 team presented a varied picture. Terrorism had previously been a major concern only in a minority of the Outlook countries, and all members of the team agreed that its prominence had increased. Team members further felt that public opinion in most though not all countries accepted that the September 11 attacks constituted an attack on civilization. The idea that the U.S. "war on terrorism" is a war on Islam was generally rejected. Similarly, in the team's view, public opinion in most but not all countries considered the overall U.S. response to September 11 as having been appropriate. However, while there was general support for the "war on terrorism" before the launching of the campaign in Afghanistan, the overall level of support declined in the weeks following it, and some analysts felt that the balance of opinion toward the U.S. action had shifted to the negative in their countries.

The analysts' own views of the prospects for the war on terrorism were also diverse. There was wide agreement—though not unanimity—that the war against terrorism, including the destruction of the Taliban regime, is legitimate. However, only a minority thought that the U.S.-led coalition would hold together for an extended fight against terrorism. Moreover, only a minority believed—and fully half of the group doubted—that U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan alone would be effective in destroying terrorism. Finally, almost half opposed widening the coalition effort to include other countries (such as Iraq) found to be supporting terrorism.

Asked what their countries should do in response to September 11, a strong majority of the analysts favored sharing intelligence information on terrorist activities, offering diplomatic support for U.S. military efforts, and providing humanitarian relief. As to direct participation in the Afghan campaign, over a third of the group favored contributing forces, while another quarter favored offering military support (such as access rights) but not troops. Thus, there was general support among the team for the anti-terrorism effort, but considerable skepticism as to its effectiveness.

Long-term Significance

There were also differences of view among team members as to whether September 11 constitutes a true watershed even in the longer term. One general view is that September 11 is a likely starting point of a new era in the post–cold war period. In this view, fighting terrorism is a new type of conflict, with new adversaries, new methods of warfare, and new asymmetries, and it will lead to the development of new tactics and strategies. The focus will shift away from strategic weapons systems such as missile defense and toward such technologies as night vision systems. In this view, the campaign against terrorism is also leading to major changes in alliance systems. New coalitions and alliances are being formed, and relationships between states are changing. The war in Afghanistan is influencing the security conditions and strategic calculations of states from Algeria to the Philippines.

The alternative view is that the fundamental landscape has not changed, that September 11 is unlikely to have a significant impact either on the mindsets of policymakers or on strategic relationships. An essentially traditional security approach prevails—focused on military forces, interstate conflict, or issues such as missile defense. As for the changes in major power relations, terrorism has gained new prominence on the agenda, but fundamental attitudes, issues, policies, and strategies remain the same. This perspective sees little or no evidence of significant structural or institutional change and views the anti-terrorism coalition as essentially fragile and ephemeral.

Whether or not perceptions of issues have permanently changed, Outlook 2002 analysts argued that the events of September 11 should serve as a call to change regional approaches to security policy. Some stressed that terrorism does not exist in a vacuum but needs to be addressed in a broader context, including turbulence and dynamism within the Islamic world and between the Islamic and Western worlds. Greater attention to long-term human security and the problems of nation building is required. Some analysts also pointed out that the resentment that leads to terrorism is not solely directed against any single country, but reflects broader frustration with established governments and rapid socio-cultural change throughout the region.

Others pointed out that the current focus of activity in the greater Middle East region provides a period of relative respite in Asia Pacific. Indeed, the common interests highlighted by the September 11 events have improved the atmosphere of large power relations and could provide an opportunity for work on some of the fundamental long-term security issues, such as Sino-U.S. relations, in the Asia Pacific region. These analysts, however, stressed that such improvement will not happen unless there is recognition among the parties that common vital interests are affected and that all parties can gain from fundamentally transforming their relations.

In the same token, there is also great potential for tension among Asia Pacific powers as the struggle against terrorism proceeds. Certainly, Outlook 2002 analysts identified America's war against terrorism as the single most serious issue for the next five years. Activities of terrorist networks in Asia Pacific also became one of the top concerns. Perhaps most important are the differences in perception that exist among the analysts concerning the likely impact of the military dimensions of the struggle and the likely non-military approaches to the terrorist threat. This suggests divergent opinions among the populations of Asia Pacific countries. There is thus the possibility for widening gaps of perception on how to face the new security challenges of the 21st century. In fact, many Asia Pacific societies place a high value on the sanctity of sovereignty. Preemptive actions by the United States against other countries deemed supporting or hosting terrorism, unless backed by convincing evidence, could trigger serious tensions in the United States' relations with Asia Pacific countries.

The Watch List

The Asia Pacific Security Outlook monitors a series of "watch list" issues considered to be of major importance to regional stability. Each year the team of analysts is asked to assess whether the outlook in these areas has improved or worsened over the preceding year. From the inception of the project in 1997 the list has contained four issues: the Korean peninsula, large power relations, arms acquisitions, and territorial disputes. Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997 the Asia Pacific's economic outlook was added to the watch list for the 1998 edition; and following the serious instability in Indonesia the outlook for this important Asia Pacific country was included in the 2000 edition. To provide a coherent comparison across time this list was kept unchanged for the Outlook 2002. Issues pertaining to the attacks of September 11 and subsequent developments were incorporated in another part of the questionnaire, the results of which are rendered above.

The Outlook 2002 team's assessment of the watch list issues differs in several important respects from that of the preceding year. The general optimism over prospects for inter-Korean relations has faded, producing decidedly mixed current views for the outlook for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. By contrast, the 2002 team is more positive on the state of major power relations, with a strong majority seeing an improved outlook. The most negative finding for 2002 is the assessment of the economic outlook, now almost unanimously regarded as having worsened. The appraisal of prospects for the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes is essentially the same as in the previous edition, with most seeing no change. Views on Indonesian stability are also divided, but only between those who see the outlook as unchanged and those who believe it has worsened; no analyst sees improvement. Finally, although concerns over arms acquisitions have not dissipated, the trend during 2001 is now seen as unchanged. During 2000 it was seen as having worsened.

Uncertainty and Opportunity

The outlook for the Asia Pacific security environment in 2002–2003 is one of considerable uncertainty. The threat of terrorism looms large, but the precise nature of the threat is inherently fuzzy. The outcome of the anti-terrorism campaign is also indeterminate, including its possible extension beyond Afghanistan. Similarly, it remains to be seen how enduring the single-minded U.S. focus on anti-terrorism will be, how well the anti-terrorism coalition will hold together, and how these developments will influence international relationships in Asia Pacific. Broader-ranging uncertainties also include the impact of the conflict on Islamic radicalism and on moderate Islamic governments. Finally, the length and nature of the economic downturn is another critical unknown affecting the welfare of the region's peoples and the stability of its nations.

The events of September 11, however, have also highlighted new opportunities for cooperation in the Asia Pacific region. The fight against terrorism has improved the atmosphere of large power relations and underlined common interests. An opportunity exists to fundamentally transform long-term security tensions in the Asia Pacific region, especially those clustered around Sino-U.S. and U.S.-Russian relations. At a minimum, the increased sharing of intelligence information on terrorist activities, diplomatic efforts to coordinate security activities against terrorist networks, and financial cooperation against illicit money flows is fostering greater understanding and collaboration among the security and military forces of Asia Pacific countries. These developments might even open up new avenues to establish a more standing and effective consultative mechanism for security cooperation in the region.