Push and Pull: East Asian Regional Security

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Articles, Asia

“Push and Pull: East Asian Regional Security”

Advocacy Days presentation, March 6, 2004



The current crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program takes place within a regional security context with an important push factor (U.S. military policy toward the region) and an equally important pull factor (a “revolution in Asian military affairs”).


The last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), published just after September 11, 2001 but prepared largely prior to these tragedies, subtly changed U.S. policy toward Asia.  A new focus was placed on the “East Asian littoral,” the coastline that stretches from just south of Japan all the way through Southeast Asia and up to the Bay of Bengal.  According to the QDR, the United States wants to gain “additional access and infrastructure agreements” along this littoral.  It also wants to develop “systems capable of sustained operations at greater distances with minimal theater-based support.”  In other words, the United States is increasingly looking southward in Asia and wants to beef up its military presence in Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia.  The much vaunted “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that has been slowly reshaping U.S. force posture in the last decade emphasizes speed, communications, and high technology in ramping up U.S. power projection across long distances.  The purpose of applying RMA in this southern shift is threefold: protect the movement of energy resources through the South China Sea, prosecute the war on terrorism against targets in Indonesia and the Philippines, and, perhaps most importantly, contain a growing Chinese military.  If added to earlier trends, such as a Clinton-era push to increase U.S. arms exports to Asia, the transformation of U.S. security policy in Asia qualifies as a “push” factor in further militarizing an already highly militarized area.


But there is an equally important “pull factor.”  A “revolution in Asian military affairs” (RAMA) has been underway since the end of the Cold War.  North Korea’s nuclear program is one of the first heralds of this change.  The Soviet Union initially provided North Korea a “nuclear umbrella” much as the United States provided such an umbrella to South Korea and Japan.  Moscow also promised Pyongyang light-water nuclear reactors for its civilian nuclear program.  The Soviets reneged on the latter and, with the transformation of Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev, eventually withdrew the nuclear umbrella as well.  North Korea embarked on its own nuclear program as compensation as well as to realize its larger goal of military self-sufficiency.


Other countries in East Asia have followed a similar RAMA approach.  Arms spending in the region increased substantially in the 1990s, dropping temporarily as a result of the Asian financial crisis but beginning to rise again in the late 1990s.  With the Cold War over in Europe, all the countries in East Asia have pursued military policies more independent of their patrons.  They have also claimed to want militaries that better represent their increased economic power.  Since the United States has often justified its presence in East Asia – 37,000 troops in South Korea, 100,000 troops overall, and a great deal of military hardware – as necessary to prevent the rise of military hegemons, RAMA challenges the underlying U.S. rationale and, indeed, the entire Cold War military system in the region.


Japan represents the most vivid example of this trend.  Originally governed by a “peace constitution” that prohibits anything but a “self-defense force,” Japan is now implementing radically new defense policies.  This has been the dream of Japanese conservatives for many decades.  But it was only in 1998, when North Korea launched its Taepodong missile over Japan, that the conservatives were able to acquire the political support for their plans: to create a “normal” offensively arrayed military, acquire the necessary technology (such as an in-air refueling capacity), provide more support for the United States in operations in and around Japan, participate in UN peacekeeping missions, fund joint projects such as missile defense, and overturn the arms export ban to realize this plan.  There is more talk now as well in favor of breaking the ultimate taboo: the acquisition of nuclear weapons.  The United States has encouraged Japan’s military independence.  For the Clinton administration, this was a matter of burden-sharing and reducing the U.S. footprint, particularly on Okinawa.  For the Bush administration, Japanese cooperation on missile defense has been key.  But more importantly, Japan has been its most reliant hardline supporter on North Korea.


China, too, has been spending more on its military.  The Pentagon fears that China is developing a more sophisticated missile capacity to overwhelm Taiwan and a larger, more powerful navy to seize control of the South China Sea (and thereby control the movement of oil in and out of the region).  China has indeed been more hardline on what it considers “internal” issues, which are Xinjiang separatists, Tibetan nationalists, and Taiwanese supporters of de facto independence.  At the same time, however, China has been more multilateral in its approach to foreign policy – beefing up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (with Russia and Central Asia), pursuing a more diplomatic approach to the Spratly Island dispute in the South China Sea, and enthusiastically backing the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program (even to the point of suggesting that the format become institutionalized).  Across the Straits, Taiwan has also increased its military spending and would like, with U.S. assistance, to revolutionize its forces.


In South Korea, the “sunshine policy” of Kim Dae Jung and the “peace and prosperity” policy of his successor Roh Moo-Hyun have largely obscured the government’s large-scale increase in military spending.  The military budget jumped 6.4 percent in 2003 and 8 percent in 2004 (compared to only 2 percent increase in federal spending overall).  South Korea, too, wants a more independent military.  It wants greater flexibility in terms of the countries from which it can import as well as the kind of arms it can export.  The South Korean government has been anticipating U.S. force restructuring for some time and has issued several papers on how the South Korean military can replace the functions that the United States currently serves.  The relocation of a U.S. infantry division away from the DMZ, the withdrawal of a U.S. military base from downtown Seoul, and the potential withdrawal of as many as 10,000 U.S. troops from the country all reinforce the two major points of this paper: the shift in U.S. military strategy toward the south and the reshaping of force posture according to RMA on the one hand and the perceived need on the part of the South Korean government to increase military spending and create a more independent military on the other.


The shift in U.S. military policy and the “revolution in Asian military affairs” are taking place in a weak multilateral security environment in East Asia.  The ASEAN Regional Forum has barely functioned in Southeast Asia and has yet to make any forays further north.  The Six-Party Talks have yet to advance peacemaking in the region.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization focuses largely on Central Asia.  There are no regional Free Trade Agreements, which might help establish a tradition of regional dialogue.  The key problem is, of course, the diplomatic limbo of North Korea.  When the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was concluded in 1975, isolationist Albania opted out, but this did not undermine the process.  While North Korea and Albania share many similar attributes, the former plays a much larger role in its region than Albania did in Europe.  North Korea’s anomalous situation must be addressed before multilateral security discussions can advance.


With multilateralism in East Asia weak, the push factor of U.S. foreign policy and the pull factor of the “revolution in Asian military affairs” threaten the current “cold peace” in the region.  It also threatens promising developments in relations between North and South Korea.  While this situation might be a win-win situation for U.S. defense contractors and political elites in East Asia that have a vested interest in building more independent and powerful militaries, the current situation is in fact a lose-lose for long-term U.S. national interests and regional peace and security.


It is often said that the current crisis in East Asia is a result of a rogue nation pushing to acquire nuclear weapons.  But the insecurity of the region stems from these deeper trends in U.S. and East Asian security policy.  While a successful resolution to the Six Party Talks is essential to any peaceful future for East Asia, it will not likely address these deeper trends.


CanKor, April 19, 2004

Leave a Reply