West Asia turmoil worries east Asia

Tags: Op-ed
From Beijing to Jakarta, from Manila to Tokyo, east Asian governments worry about the escalating turmoil in West Asia, notably the descent of Iraq, Syria and Libya to failed states and battlefields. There are three concerns that stand out: the fear of serious disruptions to the world economy, the anxiety about the export of jihadists from the Arab world to Asia, and the frustration about one’s own inability to exert political, diplomatic and military influence in West Asia.

Up till now, in spite of escalating violence in West Asia, the world economy has held out remarkably well. Islamic militants are threatening or have even occupied oil fields in Syria and Iraq. In spite of this, oil prices on the world markets have not spiked. On the one hand, it seems that supplies have not been seriously disrupted by the multiple wars, while on the other hand the world knows that the major consumer of oil, the USA, has, with by way of fracking made big strides towards self-sufficiency. However, things could take a dramatic turn to the worst if the oil rich south of Iraq, if the oil production in Libya and if the Saudi oil fields were to come under attack. While all this looks unlikely at the moment, these are scenarios that must be taken into account.

The massive expansion of the east Asian economies, notably the historic boom of China with decades of high economic growth has increased the dependence of the region on energy sources and raw materials that have to be brought in from other parts of the world. Beijing is known to follow mercantilist trade and economic policies. China has accumulated the world’s largest ever foreign exchange reserves, several times bigger than the reserves held by runner-up Japan. It uses these financial resources to buy up land, mines and oil and gas wells in other parts of the world, notably in Africa. This Chinese overseas presence has grown substantially over the past two decades. When Libya descended into civil war we read that some 30,000 Chinese were stranded in the country. From Senegal to Nigeria, from Tanzania to Angola, the Chinese are omnipresent on the African continent.

Japan is even more dependent on the import of oil and gas than China, as it has absolutely no fossil fuel resources of its own. At present, when all the nuclear power stations have been shut down, this exposure to foreign energy dependence is particularly worrying, both in economic and in geopolitical terms. South Korea finds itself in a similar position as does Taiwan. The major southeast Asian countries are dependent on overseas resources but at least have vast natural resources within their boundaries, most of which, however, have not yet been explored. Indonesia is making huge infrastructure investments in order to get access to new natural resources, while in the case of recently opened Myanmar several major Asian players, notably China, Japan, and India are in the race for influence and access to the riches of that country.

In terms of religion, southeast Asia is the most diverse part of the world. The Philippines is a predominantly christian, catholic country; Myanmar and Thailand are majority buddhist; Indonesia and Malaysia have a population where the huge majority are muslims. While for some time there have been no major religious clashes, there is a large potential for unrest. In some cases, regional independence movements mingle with religious fundamentalism as is the case in the Philippines and in the south of Thailand. The region is huge and the island empires stretch over gigantic distances. In spite of being the world’s fourth largest country by population, vast stretches of the huge Indonesian archipelago are underpopulated, as around half of Indonesia’s total population of some 260 million lives on the island of Java.

In southeast Asia, thousands of islands as well as dense forest and remote hilly areas are vulnerable to external infiltration. The fear looms large that foreign mercenaries of extremist islamism might use local grievances and through intimidation and missionary zeal destabilise an always precarious climate of peaceful cohabitation. Even in the People’s Republic of China, there is growing fear that terrorist attacks by Islamist forces might spread beyond the already troubled lands of the Uighur community. While Islam in east Asia has a very different cultural background from Islam in West Asia and notably in the Arab world, there are fears that extremism might be contagious across national boundaries.

Lastly, Beijing and Tokyo are particularly concerned that when it comes to events in West Asia they do not have the necessary diplomatic, economic and military clout to promote and defend their own interests. It is Washington, Israel and to a very small extent Europe, particularly France and Great Britain that are the major operators in the fight against an ever more aggressive and more dangerous Islamic militancy. Even Russia wields more influence than China, which, in West Asia, has to realise that its aspiration to become a super power with the global reach of the US still has a long way to go.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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