The headlines coming out of East Asia have been rather positive – compared to the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan, melting glaciers, and plummeting stock markets. The Six Party Talks have been making progress toward ending the confrontation between the United States and North Korea and denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Over the summer, North Korea provided a detailed accounting of its nuclear programs and even destroyed the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The Bush administration in turn announced that it was taking North Korea off the Trading with the Enemy Act list and the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. After a disagreement over verification, the two sides reached a compromise in October and negotiations are heading toward their third and final stage.
Helped by the other Six Party participants – South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China – the United States and North Korea appear to be only a few steps away from ending the Cold War that has divided them for more than half a century.
However, even if negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang proceed smoothly to the next level, the situation in East Asia is far from peaceful. Beneath the surface, an arms race among the countries in the Six Party Talks continues to heat up. Although a global economic recession is putting pressure on budgets everywhere, military spending will likely continue its upward trajectory without public pressure.
The arms race in Northeast Asia is driving up global military expenditures. Any effort to get a grip on the global military industrial complex will have to begin with these six countries.
Military Budgets on the Rise
The numbers are startling. U.S. military spending, which represents nearly half of all global military expenditures, has increased over 70 percent since 2001. Between 1999 and 2006, South Korea also raised its defense spending by over 70 percent, and the government in Seoul plans to increase this figure by 7-8 percent every year for the next dozen years. Chinese and Russian military spending increases have been even larger over the same period. In its difficult economic straits, North Korea has attempted to keep pace, increasing military spending by 25% (in local currency) between 2004 and 2007. Only Japan has not increased its expenditures over the same period, though an influential group of politicians in the ruling party has been pushing to remove the 1%-of-GDP cap on military spending.
The arms race in East Asia has specific, regional implications. The United States continues to lavish funds on Cold War weapons systems that can only be used in wars against comparable adversaries (in other words, China or Russia). While Beijing and Washington have cooperated on such issues as the Six Party negotiations and counter-terrorism, the Pentagon’s moves to deploy missile defense systems in the Asia Pacific are raising Chinese eyebrows. North Korea has developed weapons that undermine the security of the other members of the Six Party talks. But South Korea, too, is acquiring military capability that can reach beyond the peninsula. China’s rapid increase in military spending is creating jitters among her neighbors in the region. Washington may find comfort in an emerging new political consensus in Japan that favors a strong, offensively arrayed military, but Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang are keeping a worried eye on it. With Russia and China moving closer together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the United States and Japan strengthening their bilateral alliance, a new Cold War divide is emerging in the region. Increased military spending is both a symptom and a driver of this new confrontation.
This is no mere regional issue. In East Asia, the largest militaries in the world – the United States, China, Russia, and Japan – all face one another. The countries participating in the Six-Party Talks are responsible for 65% of global military spending. These developments in East Asia mirror a global trend: world military expenditures increased by 45 percent over the last decade.
To address this new Cold War, publicize its “hidden” arms race, and press the governments concerned to change their budget priorities, activists from the peace and Asian-American communities have proposed a Pacific Freeze campaign. Modeled after Randall Forsberg’s Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign of the 1980s, the Pacific Freeze calls on the governments in the Six Party Talks to freeze their military spending and then reduce their budgets on an equitable basis – with the United States leading the way – as a first step in demilitarizing the region. Like Forsberg’s earlier campaign, the initial freeze on military spending would be mutual.
The Freeze includes both the United States and Russia, for they are Pacific powers and spend a great deal of money on their military presence in the region. They are also the top two arms exporters in the world. Any attempt to restrain military spending that does not include the former Cold War adversaries will not likely succeed. The Freeze also applies to the entirety of the military budgets and not just the portions used in the Pacific region. The United States does not spend its entire half-trillion dollar military budget on its military presence in the Pacific. Nor do Russia and China. However, all three countries can redeploy troops and military hardware to the Pacific region in an emergency. And, since all six countries spend far in excess of their legitimate security needs, freezing the overall budget is a necessary first step in establishing reasonable budget priorities.
The ultimate goal of the campaign is to draw down military budgets and transfer a portion of the savings to a regional Green Energy fund. But the intermediary goal, as with the Nuclear Freeze campaign of the 1980s, is to get people talking about the issue. Right now, military spending is a sacred cow in all six countries. Every government insists that military “modernization” is imperative. Few civic groups have been able to raise the issue in a unilateral context in the sense of urging their government to unilaterally reduce military spending. So, both governments, and to a certain extent civic groups too, are trapped in a security dilemma. Yet this narrow security dilemma is itself inset in a much larger human security dilemma. At a time when we urgently need funds for the food crisis, the energy crisis, the climate crisis, the AIDS crisis, and other looming crises – all of which threaten human security – military spending is nowhere near the top of the global agenda.
The Six Party Talks provide a strategic opening for this kind of campaign. The participating governments have all been talking peace but preparing for war. With the Freeze, we call on the governments to put their money where the mouths are. Any progress in the nuclear talks is commendable. But the runaway military budgets exacerbate the many challenges to regional security. Despite booming trade relations, the region faces many threats to stability. A regional security mechanism, one of the working groups within the Six Party framework, could begin to address these threats. But unless such a mechanism deals with the arms race in the region, it will address only surface issues and fail to grapple with a driving force behind insecurity.
The current financial crisis – which has finally kicked in globally – may do what peace activists have been unable to do: impose austerity measures on military spending. The prospects for this, however, are not good. First of all, during past recessions and depressions, governments have used arms spending to maintain employment and stimulate the economy. Second, in the United States, the Democratic Party has continually feared being perceived as “soft on the military.” Although he has urged an end to the war in Iraq, Obama also called for redeploying troops to Afghanistan, increasing the size of the military by 92,000 troops, and staying “on the offense, from Djibouti to Kandahar.” The Pentagon wants an increase in military spending of $450 billion over the next five years (that’s over and above the already-scheduled increases for next two years).
Obama, however, is pushing for a large economic stimulus and universal health care. At a time when tax increases are largely off the table, where will the new president get the money for these ambitious plans? The peace movement has to push hard for Obama to choose butter over guns.
Peace activists have tried for years to clip the wings of the Pentagon. We’ve pushed for military reductions domestically and watched the Pentagon expand like the Blob. We’ve tried to work at an international level to restrain military spending only to witness the creation of a global military industrial complex. It’s time to try something new. Let’s leverage the negative impact of the financial crisis and the positive developments of the Six Party Talks to get the issue of military spending on table. The global military industrial complex is eating our planet. A freeze is the first step in chaining this monster and turning to the real problems that confront us.
For more information and to sign the Pacific Freeze Call to Action, please visit: http://pacificfreeze.ips-dc.org/
War Times, December 2008