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Tuesday, November 17, 1998 Published at 17:18 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Malaysia's shattered hopes

Vice President Al Gore delivering his controversial message

By Asia Analyst Tim Luard

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had hoped that acting as host to this year's Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit would be a moment of triumph.

It would enable him to show off the fact that unlike many in Asia, Malaysia had survived the worst effects of the regional crisis without relying on handouts from the West.

In particular, Dr Mahathir wanted to keep the focus of attention away from his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, whose trial on charges of sodomy and corruption had been adjourned for the duration of the summit.

[ image: Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad: High hopes for summit]
Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad: High hopes for summit
Malaysia's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which forms the core of APEC, are normally bound by a vow of silence on each other's internal affairs.

And even though the rest of APEC members include countries from both sides of the Pacific, with very different cultural traditions, the language of meetings is usually carefully diplomatic.

But the speech of US Vice-President Al Gore on Monday was a far cry from previous APEC gatherings.

And the political storm surrounding Mr Anwar's sacking and arrest has moved irresistibly to centre stage - and without Mr Anwar's supporters having to lift a finger.

Malaysia has accused Mr Gore of inciting riots and demonstration. But, the kind of demonstration most likely to be prompted by Mr Gore's comments is an anti-American one - similar to the sort that took place outside the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur after the Philippine President recently expressed his support for Mr Anwar.

Speech may backfire

In fact, Mr Gore may well have played straight into the hands of the fervently nationalist Dr Mahathir, who claims foreigners are trying to re-colonise his country.

Aware of the risk of such a backlash, the Anwar camp has all along made it clear that it would rather any vocal external support came from other ASEAN countries than from the West.

It is unlikely, though, that Dr Mahathir will be entirely successful in any attempt to use the Gore incident to launch a renaissance of his largely-discredited "Asian values" philosophy. There is indeed a sense in Thailand and elsewhere that the US might have done more to help deal with the Asian economic crisis.

Anti-Americanism unlikely

The $10bn fund launched by Washington and Tokyo this week will perhaps go some way - though hardly far enough - to answer such complaints. But we are hardly going to see a new regional mood of anti-Americanism.

Indonesia, for example, cannot antagonise America, because it needs the financial aid, while the Philippines needs a strategic counterweight to China.

Mr Anwar and, increasingly, the region as a whole know that East Asia cannot retreat into isolation, however badly treated it may sometimes feel.

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