This was published in TODAY, 4 Apr 2011. It was also published in the South China Morning Post as "Means For Peace" on 6 Apr 2011.
by Simon Tay
When the West intervened in Libya, many in Asia were silent but shook their heads. China might summarily have vetoed the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorised the use of "all necessary measures" but consciously abstained. This decision is quite a contrast to past criticisms over intervention in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
Most other Asian governments, like China, have avoided condemning intervention in Libya. India's stance against the Western action is something of an exception. But Asian acquiescence should not be mistaken as acceptance. It is not principle that has guided them but pragmatic calculation once other Arabs supported the action in Libya. Questions continue to be raised across the region, even if few at present vent these publicly.
Asian attitudes can be important, especially if the Libyan situation wears on and the allied bombing widens. There may also be broader implications for the future. The Western powers who lead the intervention face economic travails at home, while Asians and others who are on the sidelines continue to grow rapidly.
Will Western interventions be countenanced in future, when Asians and others rise to parity? Or is what we see in Libya a last hurrah for the Western powers? If intervention by force is unacceptable, how will Asians keep peace?
Asians distrust intervention from past instinct. Historically, Western powers often used force to interfere, with humanitarian or other just cause to justify the building of their empires. The Libyan case does not help by being led by France and the United Kingdom, the old colonisers.
Asians look sceptically for double standards and self-interest. Some regional comments consider the differences in Libya and Bahrain, where the military are also putting down resistance, albeit with less force, and accuse the West of double standards. Nor has it escaped attention that the West was pursuing commercial relations to secure oil and gas, and economic gain from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Most Asians also look at the practice of intervention, rather than being swayed by rhetoric and principle. Some now champion intervention as stemming from the responsibility to protect. But many will look to see whether the West is able and has the will to ensure a sustainable and stable outcome, or will quite irresponsibly leave things in a mess.
A fourth reason is that many Asians have their own sensitivities close to home. China has Tibet and minorities that trigger concerns in some Western quarters, while India is sensitive over the Kashmir question and Koreans will worry over possible intervention in neighbouring North Korea.
Inequality is an underlying reason for Asian disquiet about intervention. Currently, Asian militaries do not have the ability to intervene as the Western powers can, with aerial firepower that largely shields them from committing lives in large numbers. Expect that in the wake of Libya, those who can afford it - like China - will seek to ramp up their military capabilities.
For others without such means or ambitions, they will continue to champion principles like sovereignty and be wary of humanitarian intervention and other ideas that make sovereignty conditional. But while Asians do not license interventions by force, this does not mean they will simply stand by in the face of unacceptable violence and a disregard of civilian life.
A normative community is emerging in Asia and especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Led by Indonesia, ASEAN has this year agreed to send observers to the Thai-Cambodian border where conflict and skirmishes have already cost lives. In Timor Leste, ASEAN has played a role in the past to keep peace in tandem with Australia and, with elections again coming to the new state, efforts should again be made to try to pre-empt violence.
Asians remain shy about the use of force even where humanitarian protection is the reason. Preventive efforts that use diplomatic means will be preferred. This is understandable for societies that have been on the receiving end of such interventions and remain unable to intervene. But attitudes can change as regional communities coalesce and, if force is taboo, then other tools must be made to work.
What happens in Libya will be watched closely by Asians. Some will remain sceptical and snipe at Western power and policy. But others will wrestle with the issues knowing that, in a future perhaps not so far away, the region may no longer have the luxury of simply standing on the sidelines. Asians will need to prepare their own ways to maintain peace.