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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


U.S. Dept. of Defense photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Wade McKinnon U.S. Navy
State of the Art: Cruisers, destroyers and frigates armed with guided missiles form the core of a modern navy's offensive power in a maritime arena like Asia

Heading For Trouble
For all the attention paid to the Taiwan Strait, there is little short-term danger that shots will be fired across it in anger. But the region as a whole is on a dangerous course. Asiaweek's Regional Security Correspondent Anthony Davis surveys the flashpoints and the shift in Great Power relations that will change Asia. An essay by Carlyle Thayer, a regional security specialist based in Hawaii, says that the emerging superpower struggle could play havoc with smaller nations who miscalculate their role in the bigger picture.
By ANTHONY DAVIS

Arms races are like inflation. They are a reality that is always with us, but become a problem when they accelerate and threaten to run out of control. Prudent military planning demands that a nation's capability to defend itself is constantly modernized. But when does sensible precaution veer into rampant militarization?

As Asia rolls into the new century in a period of renewed economic growth, its peace and stability look far less certain than even five years ago. China and the United States are cranking up new, more aggressive military strategies and seeking alliances that threaten a new Cold War and could dash the hopes for a future of trade-driven peaceful co-existence. Against that background the region's militaries remain fragmented, with a startling lack of cross-border cooperation.

New power players are emerging too. India, in a period of rapid economic growth that rivals China's, is building its blue-water naval capability. Much attention is paid to New Delhi's nuclear faceoff with Pakistan. But more significantly, India is at the start of a 10-year naval building plan that will allow it to project its military presence from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula across the South China Sea. The country has enough wealth and intellectual and industrial capacity to maintain a strong military posture in Kashmir while turning its attention to the region at large. To that point, Defense Minister George Fernandes has traveled around Asia striking deals with countries as diverse as Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia to conduct joint naval exercises. Another example of India's regional ambitions: At the meeting of senior ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) officials in Bangkok on May 17, it circulated a concept paper on anti-piracy issues and offered to host a workshop for forum members in October.

"Regional cooperation" is quickly becoming a buzz word, not least because it is in such short supply in Asia. But maybe not for long. Last year the late Japanese PM Obuchi Keizo hosted a conference similar to India's to propose joint patrols to combat piracy. The plan was part of a wider Japanese strategy to place itself at the center of Asia's economic, diplomatic and military regional institutions. The anti-piracy idea was met with a positive response across Asia, except for China. Beijing said it would "go it alone" when dealing with the problem. And fittingly for Japan, the plan is to have coast guards, not navies, working together.

That approach could change. Japan stands on the verge of an era of national soul-searching that could put an end to its post-World War II pacifist identity. With the eventual emergence of a unified Korea and an increasingly powerful China, sensible planning almost demands that Japan develop a robust military capability. Few Japanese strategists think their post-war alliance with the U.S. will last forever. As the Second World War slips into history, the Japanese know that a genuine military defensive strategy will eventually have to grow beyond the limited self-defense forces Japan now deploys. The change is already underway. When Japanese vessels engaged two North Korean ships within Japanese territorial waters in March 1999, the world was astounded when the Japanese actually fired shots in anger -- the first since the end of the World War II. That incident was a turning point. In the debate that followed, the possibility of a militarily strong Japan came out of the closet.

China's size and looming presence have made it an increasingly assertive neighbor which has pushed some smaller nations into an alliance with the U.S. -- although in many instances it is at best a grudging relationship. The Americans, realizing their edge, are actively encouraging closer intra-Asian cooperative military exercises like those proposed by India and Japan. It helps stabilize the region if countries' military commanders know each other. Territorial spats are less likely to blow up into conflict when officers on either side of the dispute have the home telephone numbers of their counterparts. Admiral Dennis Blair, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief of Joint Forces in the Pacific, has made the encouragement of formation of such ties actual policy: "Participation in security communities clarifies shared interests and builds confidence in the intentions among the states involved. Shared success makes the process self-reinforcing."

Noble words indeed. But from Beijing the view is harsher: "The arms race in Northeast Asia has never stopped. And with U.S. interference the trend has gotten worse," says a senior mainland security analyst at the Academy of Military Sciences who preferred to remain anonymous. "The Americans have enhanced their power, surpassing the needs of legitimate defense, and military alliances and heightening intervention in third countries are inappropriate."

Neither of those views throws water on the traditional "flashpoints" of Asia -- the Taiwan Strait, the Line of Control through through Kashmir and the Demilitarized Zone halving the Korean Peninsula. While the faceoff across the DMZ looks like it might stand down a notch or two, the reality of a divided Korea emerging from its half-century of national schizophrenia (see NATIONS, page 22) is forcing its neighbors into reassessments of their own strategic needs. The South China Sea remains a tangled mess of territorial claims -- "No one in their wildest dreams imagines that Brunei, Malaysia or Vietnam sees a military solution anywhere in the mix in the South China Sea," notes Robert Karniol, regional editor of Janes' Defense Weekly. "For China a military solution is within their range of options." Still, Beijing and ASEAN are working toward a "Code of Conduct" for the South China Sea -- the most recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur identified "key elements toward the process of jointly drafting" such a code.

What of Asia's smaller powers? Despite the three-year decline in defense spending brought on by the Crisis, the region remains the world's second-largest arms market after the Mideast. With the economic recovery defense budgets are growing again. Military procurement has veered away from traditional land-based weapons toward an air-sea capability that protects offshore territory. In the 1980s Asian armies were buying armored vehicles and short-range aircraft to control internal threats. What are they buying in 2000? In East Asia, navies which have or plan to get submarines include Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. And the proliferation of ships with anti-ship missiles is even broader. Thailand now has an aircraft carrier and is contemplating submarines. And there is a booming competition between Americans, French and Russians to sell slightly-below-top-shelf fighter aircraft to virtually any buyer.

The problem is that all this military capacity is flowing into a region which doesn't have many institutions to mediate conflict. The ASEAN Regional Forum is the only such body and has proven to be not much more effective than any other of the ASEAN talk shops, according to Janes's Karniol. "ARF is going nowhere. There's a problem of lack of leadership on the part of ASEAN, along with different visions on the part of China and the West." That is a harsher view than others have (see EDITORIALS) but not an uncommon one. The fear is that in an era when "drugs, thugs and bugs" pose the greatest threat to most Asian nations' prosperity, they are starting to invest in weaponry that threatens rather than preserves stability. With a few exceptions, Asian nations should try less to emulate the big powers and tend more to their shorelines.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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