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Jewish World Review / May 25, 1998 / 29 Iyar, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Asian nations resisting American control

PARIS -- Indonesia's President Suharto has responded to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's disobliging demand that he resign by doing so, but in favor of Vice President B.J. Habibie, who has no independent power base, and whom President Suharto may reasonably, if not entirely reliably, expect to be a pliant defender of the interests of the Suharto family, its entourage, and of the policies by which Indonesia has been governed for 32 years.

Mrs. Albright would undoubtedly like this to be good enough to keep Indonesia quiet. It probably will not. It is not a solution likely to last for very long. Events in Indonesia in recent days have demonstrated the alienation from the Suharto system of the country's intelligentsia, including its managerial and technocratic elites, and of the children of its middle class, whose prosperity owes much to the president.

This is a development of pre-revolutionary significance. A more somber omen is that the urbanized poor who have been the principal victims of globalism's crisis in Asia now have been politically activated. Jakarta's pillaged stores testify to their anger and sense of exclusion from the country's recent prosperity.

The Chinese entrepreneurial class, with its access to the foreign investment money crucial to Indonesia's growth during the last three decades, has been warned by these developments of how precarious its position still is in Indonesia. It has been reminded of events in 1965, when ethnic Chinese were the main victims of politically inspired massacres which killed as many as three-quarters of a million people.

Indonesia now has a serious Islamic populist and fundamentalist movement, deriving from the Moslem Brotherhood created in Egypt in 1928, which militates against corruption and excess, and is led -- one might think implausibly -- by a graduate of the Universities of Notre Dame and Chicago. Historically, the Moslem Brotherhood has stood for a modernized Islamic social and political identity, and for social and economic reform by observant Moslem governments.

Indonesia's society was civilized when those of us in the Atlantic world were still barefoot and painted blue. Its political transitions are for the most part conducted with discretion and elegance. Thus President Suharto's resignation could prove the first step in a lengthy transition of power, but one which becomes more radicalized as it progresses.

Certainly the advice of Mrs. Albright and of President Bill Clinton will have only superficial influence on events. The United States, acting through the IMF, has thus far imposed upon a reluctant President Suharto its conception of necessary economic reforms, including a currency flotation which produced rapid inflation, victimizing ordinary Indonesians, who then went into the streets.

The southeast Asian and Korean monetary crises have all been in considerable degree the result of American pressures to open these economies to foreign investment, dismantling barriers to trade and destructive speculation, and then to Washington-dictated IMF austerity rescue programs that protected international investment at severe social and political cost to ordinary people.

The head of the principal French international affairs institute, Thierry de Montbrial, has drawn attention to a common characteristic of several recent Asian developments. All have demonstrated successful Asian resistance to control by Washington, and challenged Washington's ideas about the future political and strategic shape of Asia.

The context is that of Japan's continuing, and increasingly angry, refusal to adopt the policies of economic reform demanded by Washington. This occurs at the same time that China has successfully been manipulating the Clinton Administration on political as well as trade issues, while evading U.S. sanctions.

There are India's nuclear tests, conducted in defiance of Washington's non-proliferation policies. Pakistan has made its own preparations to become a nuclear power with help from China, again despite American pressures on both countries, and it may now conduct its own tests. There may also now be escalation of the struggle over Kashmir, which has already contributed to producing three wars between India and Pakistan.

Iran is likely to be next to become a nuclear power, in defiance of the U.S. Like India, Iran considers nuclear strategic autonomy appropriate to a nation of Iran's antiquity and historical importance, and it is unwilling to allow an American-supported and American-defended Israel to dominate the Middle East.

Thierry de Montbrial concludes by observing that while NATO Europe has accepted the American post-cold-war strategic order, the major Asian countries have placed in question "the capacity of the United States to organize the new world order." In the absence of that capacity, the question is what will take its place, as the initiative in global affairs visibly shifts towards this Asia that says No.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.