Asia Dominated in 2003 by Political, Security, Health Crises - and Iraq

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The year drawing to a close has seen countries in the Asia-Pacific region grapple with terrorism, political and military conflict, disease, concerns about weapons of mass destruction - and the question of how to relate to the world's sole superpower and a distant war.

The issue that impacted most on the region's relations with the U.S. over the past year was without doubt the decision by Washington and its allies to go to war against Iraq.

2003 was the year Australia reaffirmed its already solid historic military alliance with the U.S. by participating in the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Canberra also took a prominent role in the U.S. proliferation security initiative and late in the year agreed to cooperate with Washington ballistic missile defense program.

Other regional U.S. allies - South Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines - also supported the Iraq war, but less actively. After the war's end, each agreed to send troops for reconstruction programs.

On the other hand, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand were among those opposed to the decision to attack Iraq, charging that doing so without an additional U.N. mandate was wrong.

Critical leaders were mostly circumspect in their statements on the issue, although Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad accused the U.S. of making up pretexts to invade certain countries to exploit their wealth, not because of security concerns. Later in the year, Mahathir - who retired in October after 22 years - upset the U.S. and many others with stinging attacks against the world's Jews.

Ordinary people in the region who opposed U.S. Iraq policy held heated demonstrations in cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta and Sydney.

Despite predictions that the pent-up anger would erupt during a brief regional tour by President Bush in October, mass protests held during his visit to Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and Australia were mostly quieter than expected.


Bush's tour provided him with the opportunity to thank allies like President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Australia's John Howard.

Bush also met briefly with Indonesian Prime Minister Megawati Sukarnoputri on Bali, the resort island whose name became inextricably associated with terror after bombers killed 202 people at nightclubs in October 2002.

Most of the perpetrators, members of an al Qaeda-affiliated regional network called Jemaah Islamiah (JI), faced Indonesian courts and were convicted during 2003. But despite their removal from society and the capture of a leading JI operative in Thailand, another JI bombing last August at a Jakarta hotel demonstrated that the threat remains serious.

Terrorists also struck again in the Philippines this year. In March, an American missionary was among 23 people killed in a bombing at an international airport in the country's third-largest city, Davao. A month later, another blast at a wharf in Davao took 16 lives.

Manila recorded failures and successes in its fight against terror this year. A top JI bomb maker managed to escape from the capital's police headquarters last July, but he was cornered and shot dead after a three-month manhunt. This month, authorities captured another wanted terrorist, a leader of the brutal Abu Sayyaf group.

Still in the Philippines, attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to a decades-long Islamic insurgency in the south continued, and peace talks with the main separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are slated to begin next year.

In the wider region, numerous governments, as well as groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), took further steps to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation this year.

The State Department last May singled out Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia for praise of their efforts against terrorism. Authorities in Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand also arrested terror suspects during 2003.

WMD fears

Another major security worry in the region this year has been North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty early this year, citing "hostile US policy."

In the following months, the reclusive regime claimed it possessed a nuclear "deterrent" and even threatened to export nuclear technology to other states.

Efforts to resolve the crisis, drawing in China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, have been unsuccessful to date, although another round of multiparty talks may be held early in the new year.

Japan cited the ongoing threat from North Korea as primary justification for its decision late in the year to buy into the U.S. missile defense network shortly after Australia announced it was also joining the program.

Canberra and Tokyo also both participated - along with the U.S. and eight other Western countries - in early training exercises for the Proliferation Security Initiative. The PSI is a U.S. program that aims to prevent countries like North Korea, as well as terrorist groups, from selling or buying weapons of mass destruction and related items by stopping and searching suspect ships and planes.


A threat of a different kind played havoc with regional health systems and economies in the early part of the year.

Arising in southern China in Nov. 2002, a deadly new flu-like virus spread quickly through the region and beyond, with mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and Canada especially affected.

After months of playing down the outbreak of what became known as severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, China in April finally admitted the extent of the problem, apologized for its secretive approach and instituted stricter health measures.

The outbreak, which took a heavy toll on regional airlines and tourism industries, began to ease in May, but authorities across the region were on the alert for its possible return as the year drew to a close.

Political changes and crises

Familiar faces left the stage in China, Malaysia and South Korea this year. Others, including the leaders of Taiwan, Australia and the Philippines, face tough re-election campaigns in 2004.

The year also saw political and military crises in a number of countries.

In a war largely ignored by the outside world, Indonesia's military says it has killed at least 1,200 separatist rebels in the province of Aceh since Jakarta imposed martial law and began a major new offensive last May. Hundreds of civilians have also been killed, with each side blaming the deaths on the other.

Burma's military rulers were targeted for fresh U.S. sanctions after clamping down on pro-democracy opponents.

Authorities placed opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi in "protective custody" last May after a violent clash erupted between her supporters and a pro-junta crowd. The State Department called the incident a premeditated ambush.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was only permitted to return home four months later. She remains under house arrest despite repeated calls by the U.S. and others for the military to release her and other detainees.

Taiwan's relations with the U.S. became strained after lawmakers passed a controversial law allowing referendums. China feared the law could be used to move the island from de facto to formal independence.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian angered Beijing by pledging to hold a referendum on China's military threat to coincide with presidential elections next March.

President Bush, in a statement that upset some U.S. conservatives, then urged Taiwan not to make any unilateral steps toward changing the status quo. Chen said he plans to go ahead with the vote.

China had another headache on its southeastern flank, where half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest plans by the territory's pro-Beijing government to pass controversial anti-subversion legislation.

Hong Kong's chief executive was eventually forced to shelve the bill, which the U.S. and many other governments had strongly opposed.

Space calls

China does not celebrate the new year for another three weeks, when it ushers in the Year of the Monkey. Nonetheless, many Chinese people will be pleased to see the back of 2003, a year dominated by the problems of SARS, Taiwan and a rebellious Hong Kong.

Despite those crises,, 2003 did hold some good news for China.

A man named Yang Liwei became a household name and hero to many millions when he became the first Chinese astronaut to go into space.

Yang and his Shenzhou V spacecraft orbited the globe 14 times in a 21-hour mission last October.

Yang has become so famous since then that the authorities have registered his name, picture and signature, threatening legal action against anyone using his image as a marketing tool.

The U.S., which in a race against the Soviet Union four decades ago was beaten into orbit but was first to land on the moon, responded warmly to China's historic achievement.

Some commentators called on the U.S. to restart its programs and - in the words of Heritage Foundation policy analyst Dana Dillon - to "reassert American pre-eminence in space."

Beijing says it hopes to eventually land astronauts on the moon and establish a base there to exploit natural resources.

Some U.S. experts believe the space program has been driven, in part, by China's desire to develop space-based military capabilities, some of which could be used in the event of a future conflict over Taiwan.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow