East Asia's dilemma

Print edition : July 16, 2004

China's yes vote on the Iraq resolution in the Security Council is cast with the hope of an early resolution of the problem as well as the constraints placed on it by the Taiwan issue, while Japan and South Korea commit themselves to a larger presence in Iraq based on considerations of realpolitik.

in Singapore

At an anti-government rally near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on June 23.-LEE JIN-MAN/AP

UNITED Nations Security Council Resolution 1546 on Iraq has given Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi an opportunity to repackage his policy of siding with the United States. In spite of popular opposition at home to the growing Tokyo-Washington strategic confluence outside Japan, Koizumi had sent troops to Iraq several months ago on a `humanitarian' mission there under overall U.S. military command. The resolution has now come in handy for Koizumi to rationalise the extension of the `non-combat' role of his troops beyond the June-end "transfer of sovereignty" to the Iraqi people.

Koizumi's decision has been justified almost entirely on the basis of Resolution 1546. Significantly, he had cited the need to stand by the U.S. as the main strategic reason for his earlier decision to send several hundred Self-Defence Forces (SDF) personnel to Iraq. But under post-imperial Japan's `pacifist' and `anti-war' Constitution there are constraints on the use of force by SDF units. This aspect, apart from the genuine opposition to the U.S.' "imperial project", should account for the public criticism of Koizumi's decision.

Defending his latest move, Koizumi said on June 17 that the SDF units already in Iraq would now become "part of the multinational force", purportedly "requested by the Iraqi interim government", and that it would function under the terms of "the unanimously adopted new U.N. Security Council resolution".

Four cardinal principles would govern the activities of the SDF, he asserted. The SDF would "operate under Japanese national command", indicating that these troops would no longer come under the overall military jurisdiction of Washington, even if the U.S. were to spearhead a new U.N.-authorised multinational force under the provisions of Resolution 1546. Another aspect is that the Japanese soldiers would "restrict their activities to non-combat areas".

More important, SDF personnel would not be deployed as an "integral part" of a multinational squad with a duty profile involving "the use of force". The last but not the least of the conditions was that the SDF units would "operate [entirely] within the framework of the [existing Japanese] Law Concerning the Special Measures on Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq".

Suffice it to say that even a quick glance at the restrictions on the SDF's activities in Iraq, even under a U.N.-authorised process, would be a tall order to sustain in the volatile situation in that U.S.-occupied country.

FOR South Korea too Resolution 1546 has provided a new context. However, President Roh Moo-hyun, who is politically stronger after his recent judicial reinstatement, has decided to send additional troops to Iraq on the basis of some familiar political logic, which is rooted largely in the conundrum of the long-time U.S.-South Korean military alliance. Seoul's action is also to project itself as being Washington's friend-in-need. Roh, thus, has announced the decision to send about 3,000 additional troops, including combat-ready personnel, to Iraq to join the 600-odd "non-combat'' soldiers already there on a "humanitarian'' task. In fact, the Roh administration did not explicitly seek the political "cover" of the Security Council's mandate or authorisation.

There is, however, an element of realpolitik in Roh's decision to stay the course on Iraq. It is related to the U.S.' move to reduce the size of its military personnel in South Korea by shifting thousands of them to Iraq and by relocating others within South Korean territory, and Seoul's perception that the U.S.' help would be needed to face the challenge of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme.

Despite the beheading of South Korean national Kim Sun-il in Iraq on June 22. Roh reaffirmed his decision on June 23, justifying it as Seoul's contribution to help the Iraqi people. But the moot point is public opinion in the new context. A growing number of people do not see the decision through Seoul's official prism. For a variety of reasons, public opinion in the country is veering towards a critical assessment that the U.S. is an overbearing benefactor at best and a hegemonic power at worst. It now remains to be seen how the Roh administration can harmonise a U.S.-friendly foreign policy with the popular perception in the country.

It is, however, the attitude of China, a permanent member of the Security Council, that matters more to the U.S. than the actions of the "friendly'' governments in allied countries. Beijing has gone along with the U.S. and other permanent members of the Security Council in the final stages of the passage of Resolution 1546. In 2003, in contrast, China did keep the U.S. guessing on Iraq. That turned out to be one of several key factors that resulted in a no-vote situation in the Security Council - a stalemate that Washington, in a unilateralist overdrive, sought to overcome by invading Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the name of a "coalition of the willing".

War studies analyst Lawrence Freedman recently argued that "when France, followed by Russia, led the opposition [at] the Security Council to the move against Iraq [in 2003], China said very little, not raising its head above the parapet". In this line of thinking, "if France and Russia had reached a compromise with the United States, the assumption is that China would have gone along".

While it is a fact that China remained circumspect during the run-up to the formation of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 2003, it remains debatable whether it would have simply fallen in line behind the U.S. if it had struck a "compromise" with France and Russia. Two critical factors were at play for China. First, the new leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had just assumed office in March, with Jiang Zemin remaining as the backstage elder statesman. Second, international opinion against a U.N. mandate for war against Iraq was very strong indeed.

Now, with international opinion further hardened against the way the U.S. and its coalition partners have carried out their combat operations and "collateral" operations in Iraq, why did China choose to help the U.S. on Resolution 1546?

Four reasons have been cited by China in support of its position. A firm belief has been voiced that "this Resolution will help realise [the objective of] an Iraq governed by the Iraqi people". Another is the possibility of "national reconciliation" in Iraq as a sequel to the "transfer of sovereignty" to an interim government in Baghdad. The Resolution may also help set the stage for "economic reconstruction" , it is claimed. Finally, in China's thinking, "Iraq's return to the international community" could be "facilitated" by this Resolution.

If these arguments still leave room for questions about China's Iraq policy, the answer can be traced to the current state of flux as regards Beijing's equation with Washington. Given the nature of the Taiwan issue, which the U.S. is still able to hold out as a critical "card" in its dealings with China, and given also the strategic complexities of the North Korean nuclear issue, Beijing continues to tread carefully insofar as Washington's "interests" in Iraq are concerned.

Viewed differently, China has been commended in certain circles for its decision to vote for Resolution 1546 instead of abstaining.

According to an estimate, in the period August 1990-December 1999, China cast as many as 41 "abstentions" in the Security Council, citing "principled opposition" on such questions as the use of force, humanitarian intervention and the formation of international criminal tribunals. Critics of such "excessive use of abstentions", such as Pang Zhongying, argued as recently as two years ago that such actions might only compromise rather than enhance, China's position as a great power with a matching sense of responsibility. A logical corollary to this line of reasoning is the question whether China will join, at some stage, any multinational initiative, under Resolution 1546 or otherwise, to ensure peace and stability in Iraq in the period ahead. The answers might depend not only on China's own evolving world-view in the context of the U.S. activism of the current geopolitical complexion but also on the unfolding Iraqi situation itself.

A few U.S.-friendly countries in South East Asia, too, have extended varying degrees of logistical support for Washington's military presence in Iraq. However, South Korea's U.S.-related challenges are qualitatively different, even from those of Japan.

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