Hesitant steps

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

While the OIC does not take a firm stand, self-interest determines the responses of two regional groupings.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

A special session of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) chaired by Malaysia has called upon the United Nations Security Council to enforce an "immediate and comprehensive ceasefire" in Lebanon. The unanimity the 57-member OIC displayed i its one-day meeting in Putrajaya on August 3 was a serious expression of inter-state consensus.

The OIC leaders knew that the United States had made no secret of its support for Israel in its current offensive against "terrorism". Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had waxed eloquent on that aspect in Kuala Lumpur on July 28 at the annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.

Unsurprisingly, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the OIC would seek an alternative diplomatic course if the U.S. and its allies continued to prevent the Security Council from mandating a truce. He noted that the OIC would then seek to press the U.N. General Assembly to take action under the "Uniting for Peace" framework. But he did not wish to explore whether this alternative course would produce the result that the OIC desired. Nor did he go into the political "compulsions" of some OIC member-states not as well disposed towards the Hizbollah as to the U.S.

Prior to the OIC special session, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hamid Albar condemned the Israeli offensive as "state terrorism". Interestingly, during that phase of public opinion build-up in Malaysia, its former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now a critic of Abdullah, discounted the possibility of any proactive OIC move to stem the Israeli offensive. Acknowledging the difficulty of implementing a proposal that he himself made, Mahathir outlined the need to exert pressure on the U.S. through measures such as "rejecting the use of the dollar" in international commerce.

Less dramatically, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the session that the organisation should seek to set "the terms of reference and the rules of engagement" with regard to any peacekeeping force that the Security Council might decide upon. Another key suggestion by Susilo was that OIC countries should be allowed to contribute a high proportion of any such peacekeepers. All these proposals were based on a political context that saw the Israeli military campaign as a "Muslim issue".

Some fringe groups in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority state, treated the Israeli action as a religious issue in a religious context. As of early August, these groups announced plans to send jehad volunteers to Israel and countries friendly to it. One of them even held a televised display of martial arts on the eve of the announced departure of some of the jehad activists. While many in East Asia discounted the practicality of any such moves and even the "commitment" of these jehadis, the Indonesian authorities did not invoke their post-2002 anti-terror laws to crack down on the groups that threatened suicide bombings, though Jakarta did cautioned them.

The internal dynamics of the OIC do not, on the whole, impinge significantly on East Asian politics. Only three South-East Asian states - Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - are OIC members. And East Asian politics is generally dominated by China and Japan, with India and Russia considered potential players.

These countries were along with the U.S. among the participants in one or both of the two important annual meetings that took place in Kuala Lumpur this time. Of the two fora, the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea), had no difficulty in arriving at a consensus on the Israeli-Lebanon-Hizbollah conflict. In contrast, the ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes the U.S. and some of its staunch allies, came to no consensus. In fact, it was a measure of the complex reality that Hamid Albar, who chaired the ARF session, later said that only "some Ministers", among those assembled, expressed "grave concern over the deteriorating situation", as of late-July, and "called for a ceasefire".

In a coded reference to Israel, Hamid Albar noted that only "some Ministers expressed their grave concern over the ... unabated violence in the Middle East (West Asia), particularly the disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive use of force in Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Lebanon."

Hamid's assiduous omission of Israel by name in his sum-up statement was conspicuous, though the reference to "disproportionate ... use of force" was a give-away. The ASEAN+3 had no qualms in identifying Israel as the perpetrator of the "disproportionate use of force" and calling categorically for "an immediate ceasefire".

Why did Japan, whose security alliance with the U.S. was recently updated, agree to a direct anti-Israel formulation? Diplomatic sources point to enlightened self-interest. It is Japan's standard line that any conflagration in West Asia could affect its own the energy supplies. The political aspect of Tokyo's enlightened self-interest was reflected in the parallel assertion by the ASEAN+3 that Israel's use of force was "triggered by the capture of the two Israeli soldiers". But Japan had no hesitation in condemning Israel for its "apparently deliberate targeting ... of the U.N. observer post in southern Lebanon".

The subtle role that Beijing has played at this ASEAN+3 meeting can be traced to a dictum enunciated by China's well-known exponent of its policy of "peaceful rise". According to Zheng Bijian, "China and the United States share the duty and obligation to maintain a stable international order and work out its proper reform".

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