Asia must reshape this new world disorder
The killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, in an American drone strike in January carries implications that go far beyond Iran and conflict in the Middle East.
Asian nations appear afraid to speak out, their heads deliberately burrowed in the sands, unable to process the global implications of what is unfolding.
The reaction to the lethal US strike was immediate. Iran declared it would no longer comply with the 2015 nuclear deal. The Iraqi parliament voted to expel foreign troops. American-led forces switched their attention from defeating the Islamic State terror group to protecting their own.
To underline the insoluble violence that characterises the Middle East, more than 50 people died in crushes around Soleimani’s funeral and, in the fog and fear of war, a trigger-loose Iranian missile gunner shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner.
Above all that, however, lies America’s shifting position on the current rules-based world order which runs through so many threads and flashpoints.
International law comes into play with China’s military bases in the South China Sea, with Russia’s claims to vast areas of the melting Arctic ice, with war crimes tribunals and so on.
The legality of the drone killing remains embroiled in technicalities of both international and American law. In the US, political assassination has been illegal since 1976. Internationally, Soleimani’s killing should only be legal if the danger he posed had been imminent, and that remains unproven.
But it is the United States’ threat against Iran’s cultural sites that marks an unequivocal violation.
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property emanated from the Second World War, and a 2017 United Nations resolution, prompted by Islamic State attacks, makes unlawful the ‘destruction of cultural heritage, including religious sites and artifacts’.
Those who benefit most from international law are the less wealthy nations who need the semblance of a level playing field with rules, rather than being caught up in the anarchy of raw power projection.
In that respect, warnings from Asian nations against Trump’s policy have been pitiful.
India simply stated the obvious – ‘It is vital that the situation does not escalate further’ – while Indonesia requested ‘all parties to refrain from instigating further violence’ and Japan urged ‘all related nations to do their utmost diplomatic effort to improve their relations’.
It is difficult to accept that these bland, impotent statements, bereft of intellectual ballast, come from the 21stcentury’s rising regional powerhouse nations which, barely a generation ago, were torn apart in super-power rivalry.
It was left to Malaysia’s 94-year-old Mahatir Mohammed to spell out the stakes. ‘We are no longer safe now,’ he said. ‘If anybody insults or says something that somebody doesn’t like, it is all right for that person from another country to send a drone and perhaps have a shot at me.’
The fragmentation of international law that emanates from America’s current Iran policy provides an opportunity to the countries of the Indo-Pacific to steer back towards, or even help reshape, a new rules-based order.
President Trump is already redefining America’s global position, from pulling out of the trade driven Trans-Pacific Partnership to questioning the One China Policy and the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
In 2018, he re-introduced the concept of the Monroe Doctrine in which, as he put it, the US ‘rejects the interference of foreign nations in this (Western) hemisphere and in our own affairs’.
Yet in many respects, China is adopting its own Monroe Doctrine with its South China Sea bases and prison camps in Xinjiang. Iran is implementing a similar policy, exerting influence in Iraq, Syria and a wider Middle East, partly to protect its own borders.
Neither China nor Iran is complying with international law.
A world in which violent action is legitimised by governments who claim to feel threatened is one where power is administered not through the rule of law but through the barrel of a gun.
The lead on this is now coming directly from the White House, with President Trump rejecting outright the ideology of globalism and embracing in its place a doctrine of patriotism and the right to protect American citizens anywhere in the world.
Such a roadmap will not work for the Indo-Pacific with its myriad of cultures, religions, nations and political systems.
Instead of playing catch-up and reacting, it is time for Asia to take a lead and find a shared, judicious voice to temper superpower ambition and hubris, be it from China, Russia or the United States.
A good starting point would be to demand an American confirmation that attacking sites of cultural heritage in any nation is against the law.