Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
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The World After Iraq


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen


I last visited Bangkok in January 1998. The region was in the throes of the Asian Financial crisis.

Then came the September 11th attacks on the US, which was a watershed in geopolitics. 9/11 fundamentally changed the US outlook.


The Bush Administration came into office in January 2001 with a tough position on China. China was regarded as a strategic competitor. Tensions between them escalated after the EP-3 spy plan collision off Hainan Island in March 2001.

Six months later came 9/11, President Jiang Zemin immediately called President Bush to express his sympathy and support. China is ready to co-operate in the fight against terrorism and has been helpful to the US in the United Nations Security Council.

Terrorism by Islamic extremists threatens America

To protect itself, the US decided to use its enormous military power to remove threats to its security. It launched its attack against Afghanistan in October 2001. Al-Qaeda elements fled and the Taliban regime collapsed. US casualties were light. This gave the US added confidence to try a second campaign in March 2003, this time in Iraq.

Victory was swift. Casualties were light. The Iraqis were freed from a tyrant.

But nine months later, there is no security and stability in Iraq. Rogue Iraqi elements, particularly in the Sunni Triangle, continue to mount guerrilla attacks and disruptive campaigns. The US wants to establish democracy, but without Iraq breaking up into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parts. It will be a long, hard slog.

International disunity has not helped. France, Russia and Germany opposed the US in the UNSC when it sought to gather support for the war against Iraq. And the US has found it difficult to find coalition partners to commit sizeable forces for Iraq’s reconstruction.

US military dominance is overwhelming but it is not enough to solve the worldwide terrorist threat. There is a need for international action and co-operation in areas like intelligence, financial tracing, freezing of accounts, joint operations against terrorists. Most of all, international and UN support can help in finding a security and political solution in Iraq. Meanwhile the bloodletting between Palestinians and Israelis aggravates the problem.

Will the major powers unite to counter the terrorist threat? The US is at the forefront of this fight. As the only superpower, its leadership is essential. But far from generating unity, the Iraq war shattered the definition of the "West" that we knew during the Cold War.

Between 1945 and 1991, the US and Western Europe were allied against the Soviet Union. NATO provided the military foundation. The IMF, World Bank and GATT underpinned the open market system. Together with Japan, the ‘West" inspired confidence that they were the winning side and they swung large numbers of Third World countries away from the Soviet Union. This international unity of purpose is sorely needed today.

It is in Europe’s and Asia’s interests that the US succeeds in Iraq. A successful Iraq would greatly dampen terrorism. Conversely, if insurgency and terrorism can wound the US and thwart Iraq’s recovery, the consequences would be horrendous. Terrorists everywhere will be emboldened and these international terrorist networks will swell in numbers and viciousness.

They cannot destroy the civilised world. Civilisation will prevail over the extremists and terrorists. They can damage, kill, scare and terrify their targets but they cannot win.

The more straightforward part of the answer to terrorism is the elimination of terrorists and the break-up of their networks through good intelligence co-operation. But this only removes the worker bees or foot-soldiers. For every terrorist killed, the queen bees, the charismatic preachers in the madrasahs and mosques, can produce dozens more. It is a hydra-headed problem.

The Muslim community must play a crucial role. If Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists were to enter the mosques and madrasahs to stop this poison being poured into young Muslim minds, they would create outrage amongst both moderate and extremist Muslims. Only Muslims can do this to challenge and correct these perverted interpretations of Islam.

Muslim nationalists, modernisers, political, civic and religious leaders must put down these perverted Islamic teachings. If they do not, their own regimes and societies will be at risk. For the extremists are out to seize power. For a time, the Saudis believed that by exporting austere Wahabbism they were buying peace for Saudi Arabia. But recent acts of terror in Saudi Arabia show that the extremists are ready to take on the Saudi Royal family.

Eventually, the fight will boil down to one between Muslims who want to return to the Islam of the 11th century (when Islam shut out the outside world and cut itself from new ideas) and those who want to see a modern Islam attuned to the 21st century. If the West were to reach a consensus and agree on their strategy against terrorists as it did during the Cold War, then together with Japan, China and Russia, moderate Muslims who want to modernise their societies will have confidence and courage to take on the extremists and stop them from producing more terrorists.

For Southeast Asia, this is not a problem in the abstract. Dealing effectively with terrorism is essential for our future.

For some time now, a more austere form of Islam has been taking root in our region. Fanaticism from the Arab world has been exported to moderate Muslims in Southeast Asia. Globalisation has heightened influences from the Middle East and South Asia. Al-Jazeera, for example, has been broadcasting its version of world news to Southeast Asia.

This has complicated on-going political changes that allow the Islamists greater influence, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, the key contest is between a secular and pluralistic state and a more theocratic vision of the Indonesian polity. In Malaysia, the Islamic opposition wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state with hudud laws. The efforts by the governments in Malaysia and Indonesia to ensure the moderate and forward looking nature of their societies are of critical importance. Ultimately, it is a contest for power to decide the way forward for Muslims in the face of powerful technological changes that has hastened globalisation.

We live in testing times. We have to learn to cope with these threats and continue life and business, adjusting to living in a more security conscious environment. Air travel is more inconvenient, transshipment of goods slower, and domestic assets have been hardened with time consuming car checks for bombs at major buildings and hotels. It is becoming part of our way of life. We have to take these precautions and get on with life. There are other security threats: weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, failing states and organized transnational crime. Global warming is causing storms, flooding, drought and other strange climate phenomena. Medical science has not found a cure for AIDS yet. But these problems cannot destroy the world civilization which the Cold War could have, had it become a hot war. They can however mar our lives and dent economies.

Regional Developments

Let me turn to other events affecting our region.

The US is the most militarily powerful and economically dynamic country in the world. It is the engine for global growth through its innovation, productivity and consumption. It is far ahead of Europe and Japan. China is the only country that has the potential to catch up in the next 30-50 years.

Sino-US relations are the cornerstone of regional stability in East Asia. When the relationship is stable, the region is calm. But when relations are roiled, the region is unsettled.

Fortunately, there are signs currently that for the present phase both China and the US want to avoid conflict and are willing to work together to co-operate against Islamic extremists and to manage the North Korea issue. For China’s economy to grow it needs the US to absorb its exports and provide access to technology.

However, two issues – Taiwan and North Korea - remain potential flashpoints.

In Taiwan, the passing of the referendum bill and the push for amendment to the Constitution have raised the cross-strait temperature. China has strongly warned Taiwan not to cross the line on independence. China’s leaders consider their sovereignty as paramount and no leader can afford to lose Taiwan. The US holds the key to cross-strait relations. The US has repeatedly stated that it supports the One-China policy and does not support Taiwan independence. On 9 December 2003 President Bush added that the US opposes any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. He made clear that comments and actions by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo and that the US was opposed to this. On North Korea, some Americans see regime change in Pyongyang as the only solution. China wants to preserve the status quo. But both the US and China want to contain the situation and prevent Pyongyang from going nuclear. Nobody wants war.

Common interests make it unlikely that Sino-US relations will go seriously sour in spite of the fierce protectionist rhetoric which has marked the start of the American election campaign. This is good news for Southeast Asia. The present is a high point in relations between the major powers across the Pacific. Sino-US and Sino-Japan relations are stable. Even Sino-Indian relations are cooperative. India, like China, is focusing on its development.

China and India are huge competitors in the free market race. The diversion of foreign investments away from ASEAN is palpable. Sandwiched by India to the West, and China, Japan, and Korea in the North and Northeast, ASEAN must find new ways to regain its competitiveness. Individually, most ASEAN countries do not have the economic weight of a province in China or a state in India. We must create a larger and more attractive economic entity. With stability, ASEAN countries will grow steadily. How strongly we grow depends on two key factors: first, our success at continuing to deepen integration within ASEAN, and second, our ability to keep ASEAN outward-looking and ride on the wave of growth and prosperity in China and India, besides latching on to the industrial majors of the US, EU and Japan.

When ASEAN began its initiative to establish an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992, it was a milestone. But more than 10 years later, AFTA has not kept pace with the breadth and depth of other economic agreements such as NAFTA.

ASEAN leaders are well aware that they need to band together. At the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali, 7-8 October 2003, they adopted a framework to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2020. The AEC aims to create a single market and production space with a free flow of goods, services, investment capital and skilled labour. This consolidated market of 500 million people will make us more competitive. A McKinsey study estimated that an integrated ASEAN could increase the region’s GDP by at least 10% and reduce operational costs by up to 20%.

At the same time, ASEAN will need to remain outward-looking. This has been a key factor in ASEAN’s success. We must remain focused on our ties with key partners worldwide. With many of these partners, ASEAN has already instituted FTA negotiations. China and India’s FTA proposals with ASEAN, Japan’s CEP (Comprehensive Economic Partnership), and the ROK’s proposal for a joint study on a possible FTA can be seen in this light. The US is also engaging ASEAN countries in FTA and economic cooperation initiatives. ASEAN should especially link up with China and India to ride on their growth.

ASEAN countries are already benefiting from the rapid increase in Chinese tourists and investments. The ASEAN-China FTA, when realised, will create the single largest FTA in the world made up of developing countries. It will have a GDP of around US$ 2 trillion. Studies project that ASEAN exports to China could increase by half.

India is catching up. The business environment is becoming more favourable as protectionist measures are removed. India produces some 2 million graduates per year. Many are skilled IT professionals and engineers. They use English and are hardworking. Cities like Bangalore and Mumbai are attracting hi-tech companies. There are opportunities for ASEAN investors and traders.

Japan has started FTA/CEPA talks with Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines. This will increase growth rates as will FTAs with the US. ASEAN FTAs/CEPAs with these industrial majors are outward-looking and not exclusionary. They will quicken the pace of trade liberalisation in the region.

Thailand is doing particularly well under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He has been guided by his business experience and instincts, not by economic theories. He is known to be a hands-on leader who goes for and often achieves speedy results. Business confidence has returned as Thailand’s economy revved up.

Prime Ministers Thaksin and Goh Chok Tong have similar views on economic co-operation for ASEAN. The vibes between them are good. They have established the Singapore-Thailand Enhanced Economic Relationship (STEER) framework. They want to speed up ASEAN economic integration.

ASEAN leaders, at the recent Bali Summit endorsed the "2+x" approach which allowed two ASEAN countries to kick-off cooperation in projects of mutual interest, and be open to others to join in. When both Prime Ministers invited other ASEAN countries to join their bilateral air cargo open skies arrangement, Brunei, Cambodia, and the Philippines came on immediately. India, a Summit partner, also signed on.

Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun was the man who persuaded ASEAN leaders to agree on AFTA at the 1992 Summit in Singapore. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can be a key player in moving ASEAN towards deeper integration and higher growth rates.