Asian Armageddon?

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles, Asia

There hasn’t been a war in Northeast Asia for over 50 years. The countries in the region are not only making headway in talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, they’re also talking about creating a permanent peace structure in the region. Compared to the Middle East or much of Africa, it’s a pretty quiet corner of the world.

In his new book China Rising, scholar David Kang has two explanations. U.S. military power has kept the peace. And no one is particularly worried about the rise of China. “Taiwan is the only East Asian state that fears the Chinese use of force,” he writes, “and no other East Asian state is arming itself against China nor seeking military alliances with which to contain China.”

The only problem with this explanation is that Northeast Asia is in the middle of a hot-and-heavy arms race. As I explain in Asia’s Hidden Arms Race—an article published with TomDispatch, the excellent Nation-affiliated website run by Tom Engelhardt—South Korea has increased its military spending by over 50% since embarking on its make-nice policy with the North and plans to increase it by an average of 10% a year until 2020. Japan is acquiring a whole new range of offensive military capabilities, including the option of long-range bombing. China is boosting its military spending hand over fist. And Russia, recovered from its 1990s economic slump, is chasing the United States again to become top arms exporter. Even cash-strapped North Korea is desperately trying to keep pace by devoting as much as one-quarter of its budget to the military.

And let’s not forget the putative guarantor of security in the region. The United States has been pushing Japan to break out of its “peace constitution” by selling it high-tech weaponry and spending billions to build a joint missile defense program. And what would you call the ring of alliances that the United States has created with India, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan? Not to mention close ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan, and Thailand? Connect the dots and it looks a lot like the encirclement of China. And, by the way, the United States has increased military spending over 70% under the Bush administration. Much of the weaponry (submarines, destroyers) has nothing to do with the so-called global war on terror. China is the only significant challenge to American hegemony that the Pentagon sees on the horizon.

In the most optimistic scenario, the countries negotiating with North Korea in the Six Party Talks—the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea—will reach agreement on denuclearization, establishment of diplomatic relations, and a peace treaty to end the Korean War. And they might turn the negotiating structure into a permanent peace and security framework.

But, as Suzy Kim and I argue in Hardliners Target Détente in North Korea, not everyone is enthusiastic about this trajectory. “Some critics,” we write, “continue to hold onto the old Bush strategy of isolation and regime change because, they argue, North Korea cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement. Other critics focus on North Korea’s nuclear program itself, both its internal characteristics and purported external cooperation with countries such as Syria. A third set of criticisms focuses on the February 13 agreement itself and identify flaws, ambiguities, and blind spots, particularly around the question of verification. Another group focuses instead on North Korea’s human rights record. And finally there are conservative critics in Japan and South Korea who are attempting to undermine détente from the sidelines.”

Even if engagement with North Korea overcomes these obstacles, however, all this talk of peace runs straight up against the major increases in military spending and the acquisition of ever more sophisticated weaponry. North Korea wants nuclear weapons to deter attacks. Bland reassurances at the negotiating table don’t quite square with Japan’s desire to acquire the latest F-22 fighter jets, South Korea’s new Aegis-equipped destroyer, or the billions of dollars that the United States is spending on missile defense.

There hasn’t been a war in Northeast Asia in 50 years. But the world’s largest militaries face off in Northeast Asia, and they are bulking up. If something sparks a conflict, the results are not going to be pretty.

Iran and Iraq

The military build-up in Northeast Asia is overshadowed by the real, existing war in Iraq and the potential for war with Iran.

The United States and Israel are doing their best to push Iran into a corner. Recently, for instance, Israel contracted out to India to launch a surveillance satellite. As FPIF contributor Ninan Koshy explains in India and Israel Eye Iran, “India’s launch of the new Tecsar, Israel’s advanced Israeli satellite, is equipped with a camera capable of taking pictures of Iranian soil through the masses of clouds in day or night conditions. Although the United States was opposed to the launch, it has nevertheless assigned India responsibility for helping to contain Iran.”

Iran is making its own geopolitical moves. For instance, it has reached out to Saudi Arabia. Explains FPIF contributor Rostam Pourzal in Nervously and Rapidly, Iran Courts Saudi Arabia, “It represents Tehran’s boldest step yet to divide the coalition of conservative Arab states that the Western alliance is intent on building against Iran with Israeli participation.”

Keep an eye out for Tom Engelhardt’s analysis of the prospects for troop withdrawal from Iraq, which we’ll publish this week as part of FPIF’s new strategic focus on the U.S. military footprint. In the meantime, check out the piece by FPIF’s Stephen Zunes, Teachers and the War. It explains how the American Federation of Teachers broke with the U.S. trade union movement to support the invasion of Iraq and has continued to support hawkish political candidates. “The significance of the AFT’s hawkish foreign policy agenda is not just its influential role in Democratic Party politics and in formulating the national debate on important policy issues,” writes Zunes, “but the fact that it represents the people who educate America’s youth.”

To coincide with the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War on March 20-23, poets from around the country will descend on Washington for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. There will be readings and panels and special events, all highlighting the poetry of witness and resistance. This week at FPIF, we present Lee Sharkey’s powerful poem, In vigil (2), about a confrontation at a silent anti-war protest.

Bush to Africa, Fidel to Retirement

After going chin to chin with nine U.S. presidents, Fidel Castro has decided not to run again for president of Cuba. FPIF contributor Rubrick Biegon writes this week on the implications of Fidel’s farewell.

“Contrary to Washington’s portrayal of Raul as a mere clone of his older brother, Cuba’s new leader has emerged as a reformer—albeit a tepid one,” Biegon writes in The Post-Fidel Moment. “His calls for structural changes to Cuba’s economy remind observers of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic liberalization process, who introduced market mechanisms to “modernize” the country while maintaining the Communist Party’s firm grip on power. As noted by veteran Cuba watcher Brian Latell, among others, Raul is an open admirer of the Chinese system. Ultimately, the younger Castro may prove to be more of a Gorbachev figure, releasing economic forces that usher in calls for substantive political change, resulting in trends toward liberal democracy.”

As I wrote last week, George W. Bush is touring Africa in a desperate attempt to secure a meager legacy. This week at FPIF, we take a closer look at that legacy.

In Bush’s Out-of-Tune AIDS Plan, FPIF contributors Michael Swigert and Sena Tsikata replay the president’s record on health policy toward Africa. It’s not likely that this particular record is going platinum any time soon.

“In his plucky first single, My Plan, President Bush reminds listeners of how he chose in 2003 to create his own unilateral program, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), rather than pledge full U.S. support to the already established and internationally acclaimed multilateral initiative known as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria,” Swigert and Tsikata write. “Bush’s catchy lyrics fail to mention how PEPFAR created a duplicative bureaucracy grounded in an emergency response mentality that challenges its sustainable effectiveness. Equally absent from the liner notes is any acknowledgement of the low levels of PEPFAR’s overall funding relative to the scope of the global HIV/AIDS crisis, of which Africa remains the epicenter.”

FPIF contributor Neil Watkins examines Bush’s policy on debt relief and finds it wanting.

“Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),” Watkins writes in What Does Africa Owe? “The United States, the World Bank and IMF, and other creditors lent former President Mobutu Sese Seko billions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s, knowing full well that the funds would not benefit the people. This was a price they were willing to pay in the context of the Cold War to win the country’s allegiance to the West. But this clearly odious and illegitimate debt remains on the books today—over $9 billion worth in fact, and the people of the DRC are still paying for the sins of a leader they didn’t want.”

FPIF, February 19, 2008

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