Moving out from under the US (nuclear) umbrella

by James Reilly

(This is the text of a talk James Reilly of the American Friends Service Committee presented to us on Northeast Asian regional security in December, 2003)

Tonight I want to explore a number of common assumptions, derived in part from “realist” thinking in International Relations theory that have justified US security policy toward Asia over the past decade. High levels of US arms sales to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, US bases in Japan and South Korea, and recent promotion of Theater Missile Defenses (TMD) in the region have been justified by various versions of the following argument:

Northeast Asia is fundamentally unstable. China seeks to parlay its growing economic and military might into a return as regional hegemon. North Korea is militarily powerful and potentially aggressive, an unpredictable threat to its neighbors. Japan wants to rapidly build up its military might which in turn will spark a regional arms race. Only US military bases, arms sales, and missile defenses can solve these problems, protecting “peace and stability” in the region.

I disagree. Continued US military presence may well ensure some version of “pax Americana,” but it is hardly conducive to real peace in Northeast Asia. Actually, the United States’ aggressive military position actually represents the greatest threat to peace in Northeast Asia.

I will pursue this point by first critically considering three specific examples commonly used to justify US policy, and then focusing on the Korean peninsula. I then engage in a counterfactual thought experiment: imagining regional security without the US “security blanket.” I conclude by considering strategic objectives and trends in US policy.

US Bases in Asia: Keeping Japan down, Taiwan safe, and China out?

US policies in East Asia are based upon 3 underlying presumptions: China’s “rise” poses a threat to regional security, Taiwan’s democracy requires US military support, and US bases defend Japanese security without giving rise to regional arms races. I take issue with all three, in turn:

The argument on China presumes that China seeks to return to historical domination of Asia. Its growing wealth gives it the capacity to do so, which in turn will lead other states in the region to “balance” against China, resulting in a dangerous downward spiral of weapons buildup, security tensions, and uncertainty.

Therefore, US military presence is needed to reassure other countries by providing a balancing power against China.
True, China is using a percentage of its growing national wealth to modernize its military. It claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asia, a discouraging human rights record, and remains on the whole, despite historic liberalization policies in select areas, an unenviable authoritarian regime. However, none of this means that if the US went home, China would threaten regional security.

China is focused internally. Maintaining domestic stability while assuring continued economic growth is the preeminent challenge facing the Chinese leadership. Foreign policies, like all government policies in China today, are constructed primarily to aid this goal. Quite frankly, this is difficult enough. China has little leftover resources or energy to undertake destabilizing, aggressive stances toward its neighbors.

As recent work by Iain Johnston of Harvard University suggests, China is increasingly engaging cooperatively with global and regional institutions. Johnston argues that China is in fact a “status-quo” power, which accepts the rules of the game for international cooperation.

China’s newly cooperative stance in Conference of Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, its entry into the WTO, and the arrival of the International Red Cross to Beijing are but a few examples of how Chinese leaders increasingly see international cooperation as offering them important leverage and credibility. China’s main critique of the US in recent years has been the Bush administration’s tendency to act unilaterally rather than work through international institutions. In sum, China has clearly traveled a long way from the 1960’s Maoist strategy of promoting world revolution.

This has perhaps been most significant in Southeast Asia, where China has increasingly come to cooperate with ASEAN countries. The once testy disputes over the Spratley Islands have increasingly been reduced to a moderate issue in which the parties “agree to disagree” on long-term sovereignty while agreeing on ways to avoid tensions. China has dramatically expanded its cooperative stance within ASEAN in recent years, primarily via more support for free-trade agreements.

Finally, we should recall that China’s economic growth and military modernization have generally been over-exaggerated, particularly when considered in comparison with the US and Japan. China’s economy is still roughly 10 times smaller than Japan’s (despite a decade of Japanese stagnation), and 14 times smaller than the US’s. Its military budget, subject to wild speculation due to its notorious opacity, is consumed more by the requirements of housing and feeding its massive armed forces and the related requirements of land-defenses around China’s vast border regions than the relatively small and moderate sector of more advanced, potentially-offensive weapons.

In sum, I disagree that the US should either engage or contain China, Rather, I agree with Chalmers Johnson that the US should “accommodate” China. It is a major power, with a rightful claim to the international prestige and regional influence that this power entails.

To my perspective, China has been a far more peaceful and internationally cooperative country that the United States in recent years.

Turning to Japan, US military presence is justified alternatively as either defending Japan or containing Japan from rearming. This argument is contradictory and illusory. Japan is neither likely to attack or be attacked by any other state in Northeast Asia, and is capable (and likely) to provide for its own security through economic and engagement augmented by sufficient domestic military capacity.

First off, we should recall that Japan is hardly an anemic military power. Japan’s military budget is substantially larger that of any other Asian country. Japan’s military highly technologically advanced, it has the second largest navy in Asia (after the US), more destroyers than the US, and over 120 F-15 fighters.

We should further note that Japan’s military budget is significantly smaller than it might normally be, having held at roughly 1% since 1976 (though recent expenditures combined with continued economic stagnation are changing this). US military supporters point to this constraint as evidence that Japan will re-arm if the US leaves.

Yet, if Japan is itching to rearm in the absence of US presence, the most likely time to have done so would have been in 1985. US-Japan trade tensions were at an all-time high, many in Washington were dissatisfied with the alliance, and US troop removal plans were in motion. Yet Japan’s main response was to “disarm” US-Japan trade tensions and seek to repair the alliance.

In fact, the major factor promoting Japanese military expenditures has been the US, largely as part of a broader policy to pressure the Japanese to “support” US forces as they “defend” Japan. US policy has drawn Japan into US military and diplomatic policy that the Japanese view as undermining their security, most prominently in the case of China.

The Japanese have consistently argued that the US antagonistic policy toward China undermines regional (read: Japanese) security. They are far less willing to criticize China on human rights, to support Taiwan, or enter into trade disputes with China.

Despite this, during the 1997 revision of the US-Japan Defense Guidelines, the US demanded that the alliance be expanded to include “areas surrounding Japan,” hinting at the case of involvement in a Taiwan Straits scenario. China predictably went “ballistic,” even as Japanese politicians made numerous trips to assuage their concerns.

Japanese military increases have been due in large part to US pressure, finding welcome allies within the Japanese Defense Agency, military industrial complex, and conservative politicians. Their mutual interests are obvious: Japan is the third-largest recipient of US military sales (Taiwan and Saudi Arabia are #1 and 2).

Most recently, these groups have successfully encouraged Japanese fears of North Korea. The 1998 launch of a failed North Korean satellite over Japan led the Japanese to finally yield to sustained US pressure and agree to join in TMD development. The recent media circus in Japan surrounding the “kidnappees” have further strengthened distrust of North Korea, building support for TMD within Japan.

However, it still appears likely that absent US pressure, Japan’s security policy would respond to North Korea via its more traditional foreign policy, best understood as “mercantile realism.” This entails extensive economic engagement with a potential threat to enmesh them in a network of trading relations and raise both the costs of aggression against Japan and the benefits of a peaceful approach. This has primarily been Japan’s approach toward China, and it would likely to be its approach toward North Korea without US antagonism with the DPRK, US bases, and domestic arms sales pressure within Japan.

Finally, US security policy in Asia is justified via the argument that without the US presence, Taiwanese democracy would be at risk. In fact, Taiwan is capable of deterring Chinese attacks on its own via a mix of economic engagement and military deterrence similar to Japan. US policy simply emboldens separatist politicians that use anxieties about the PRC for personal political advantage. A drawdown of US military involvement would encourage Taiwan to accept PRC efforts to expand economic engagement, and foster a more stable relationship across the Straits, where Taiwanese felt more confident that the PRC would not attack and the PRC felt confident that Taiwan will not declare independence.

Taiwan’s military capacities are hardly anemic. It has more fighter jets than China and is the world’s largest importer from the US military. Military analysts, like Michael O’Hanlan of the Brookings Institution, have concluded that a Chinese invasion would be very unlikely to succeed even without US intervention. Chinese missiles would clearly wreck havoc on Taiwan’s cities, and combined with Chinese submarines, would be able to enforce a trade embargo on Taiwan.

However, Taiwan could also strike Chinese cities and trade with China would also largely stop during such a crisis. If China attacked, international global condemnation would further impede trade (US and EU embargoes even stronger than those used after 1989 would be probable). The economic consequences would clearly be disastrous for both sides. Given the CCP’s reliance upon economic growth for domestic legitimacy, China thus appears effectively deterred even without the US military sales and security guarantee to Taiwan.

If the above holds true, then China’s argument that the US factor actually alters the equation in destabilizing fashion is more persuasive. US policy emboldens separatist politicians to make provocative statements aimed at boosting domestic support. David Brown of Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) argues that Chen Shuibian’s recent promotion of national referendums, along with Lee Teng-hui’s provocative call for “calling Taiwan Taiwan,” among other formulations, are designed to encourage the PRC to overreact, exacerbating popular anxieties toward the PRC to built support in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections. “Playing politics” with such sensitive security issues is only made possible by the blank check given Taiwan by US security policy.

Surprisingly, for a country which advocates “engagement” for itself with China, US policy enables Taiwan authorities to resist China’s consistent efforts to promote further economic engagement. China has called for the “three links” of communications, shipping, and air flights for years; yet only last year did Taiwan approve the first-ever semi-direct flights just for Chinese New Years.

Instead, if the US reduced its military presence in Asia, particularly the bases on Okinawa (which are ideally situated for involvement in Taiwan, if you look at the map), and cut arms sales to Taiwan, Taiwanese politicians and public would be likely to accept PRC requests for expanded ties and be more wary of separatist claims. This is in no fashion a reduction of Taiwanese democracy; reducing the likelihood of war may actually strengthen it. By reducing Chinese anxieties and expanding both the benefits of peace and costs of conflict, this approach may prove far more stable than the current uneasy truce supported by the outside factor of the US military.

Korean Peninsula: Contradictions and Complications

I now turn to an issue more recently in the news, the uneasy accord on the divided Korean peninsula. The US argument here is well-known, and intuitively persuasive to many: The DPRK represents a clear and present danger to peace and stability to Northeast Asia (and perhaps the world); US military might is the most effective way to deter the DPRK from undertaking aggressive military action against its neighbors and so preserves regional “peace.” Only as the DPRK is deterred, does diplomatic engagement become possible.

However, as Jae-Jung Suh has pointed out recently, US policy toward North Korea is contradictory, and thus self-destructive. Engagement is predicated upon building mutual trust, reducing enmity via cooperative projects while recognizing that one’s own “defensive” forces exacerbate the reasonable security concerns of others. Containment entails the building up of military might to create a reasonable expectation that you will use military force in certain cases (ie, a “credible deterrent”). This often requires exaggerating the potential threat to justify these military forces. Hence, containment undermines the potential for engagement.

A second contradiction illuminates the paternalism underlying US policy. Missile defenses and “containment” of North Korea are often justified in terms of defending US troops in the region; regional missile defenses are sold in the US in this fashion. Yet the same troops that are vulnerable to North Korean missiles are also said to be defending against North Korea. If they simply went home, would that solve the problem?

One response is that US troops are there to defend our allies: South Korea and Japan. This is paternalistic in the extreme: presuming both that they are incapable of defending themselves and that they do not know enough to do so. US criticism of both for being too “soft” on North Korea is just one example of this condescending attitude.

South Korea, much like Taiwan and Japan, actually has sufficient capacity to defend itself without US troops. The South has been engaged in a massive military modernization project in recent years, having budgeted $26.5 billion for new weapons purchases in 2002, in the first year of a five year force improvement program. The military program vastly outweighs efforts at engagement: in 2000 the ROK spent $12.8 billion to fight the DPRK, about a hundred times more than its $114 million for humanitarian aid.

In fact, by as early as 1990 even South Korea’s military began to admit that their conventional military strength had surpassed the North’s, a point that while widely noted by analysts over the past decade, has had little impact on the massive boost in both ROK and US military spending on the peninsula.

On the other side, the possibility that the DPRK’s apparent nuclear program is designed as either a defensive measure or a trading chip has only rarely been considered. This is disappointing, given that former Secretary of Defense William Perry told President Clinton, after an extensive policy review, that the goal of North Korea’s missile program is “primarily deterrence” and in reaction to the massive forces arrayed against them.

Furthermore, amidst the recent nuclear hullabaloo, only a few people noticed the North’s repeated efforts to put this nascent nuclear program on the trading block in exchange for US diplomatic recognition, security guarantees, and access to economic assistance and energy supplies. This is a good deal for the US; a fact which some elements of the Bush administration appear to be finally recognizing.

How then, to deal with North Korea? Reasonable policy plans begin by admitting a simple fact: There is no military option in North Korea. The DPRK has an effective deterrent over Seoul; no amount of technical wizardry can overcome the tyranny of geography. This means that the only two policy possibilities are stalemate and negotiation. We have been in an expensive and dangerous state of stalemate for half a century; bursts of negotiations over the past decade have shown promise.

Talks aimed at a comprehensive solution are the best way forward. These begin with the tradeoff noted above, but must continue on to encompass a negotiated end to the Korean War, the removal of US bases from South Korea and Japan, a dramatic reduction in US arms sales to the region, and promotion of multilateral mechanisms and agreements such as a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia.

Moving outside the US (Nuclear) Umbrella: Will it Really Rain?

As E. E. Carr reminded us nearly fifty years ago, politics is about more than realism; it also requires imagination. Let us then try to imagine Northeast Asia without US bases, massive arms sales, missile defenses, and diplomatic isolation of North Korea. Would the region truly spiral downward into interstate conflict?

I suggest that perhaps not. Instead, I think that Japan would be more likely to seek accommodation with China than balance against it. Taiwanese politicians would moderate their calls for “independence” and accept economic interdependence as the most stable way to achieve peace and prosperity for their people. Southeast Asian nations would continue their efforts to spread robust multilateral institutions in Northeast Asia; which would be welcomed as a way to engage China.

China would not invade Taiwan, engage in military conflicts over small islands in the South China Sea, or massively build up its military against Japan; rather China would continue to focus on assuring domestic stability via economic growth. All foreign policies would continue to be filtered through this preeminent prism, as such multilateralism would continue to gain broader acceptance within China’s policymaking elite.

Finally, the Korean peninsula would be able to turn away from endless and expensive preparations for war to construction of a “peace regime” on the peninsula. International assistance and long-delayed reparations from Japan would support expanding the current nascent economic reforms, regional trade would expand, and international engagement would slowly encourage the North Korean leadership to participate more constructively in multilateral institutions. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban models would be seen as viable paths forward. Slowly, inexorably, the regime would begin to change.

Most importantly, the structures of regional relations would be transformed. Two models are instructive; Southeast Asia and Europe. ASEAN was built up in the wake of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and the aftereffects of the “Nixon shocks,” the dénouement of which came with US withdrawal from its Subic Bay base in the Philippines in 1995.

Replacing the US “wagon wheel” of alliances bifurcating the region into Communist or Not, Southeast Asian countries built up a multilateral structure based on inclusiveness, promoting cooperation slowly via dialogue. Success in bringing down trade barriers has emboldened ASEAN nations to move into both security areas and expand the organization to Northeast Asia. In a region consumed by Cold War conflict, interstate conflict has become almost unimaginable.

Europe has come even farther. After WWII, conscious design brought France and Germany together in a network of overlapping economic development projects, building the trust that lay the foundation for EU cooperation decades later. Europeans have now expanded their model to Eastern Europe in the wake of the Cold War. Now in a region which gave rise to both world wars, interstate conflict in Western Europe is unimaginable. Perhaps this will soon be true for Eastern Europe as well.

US Policy: Moving Backward by Moving Forward

Pentagon plans to reduce the forward presence of US troops in Korea, the famed “tripwire,” are finally moving forward. After recent meetings in Seoul, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that over the next few years, the US will move the majority of its troops south of Seoul, turn over command at the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom to the ROK, cut the overall number of US troops to an undecided number, and turn over a greater number of military missions over to the ROK military.

Does this represent a resumption of the US drawdown of its forward positions in Northeast Asia begun under George Bush the First? I think not. Rather it seems to be a calculated assessment that by removing the “tripwire” forces, the US offers itself greater flexibility in taking more aggressive action in Korea while reducing its likely costs. This assessment, shared by many in South Korea, is one reason for the opposition there to US plans.

Global US military strategy, enshrined in the Bush administration’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) calls for the US military to be able to “Decisively impose our will on any one aggressor of our choosing” including a capacity to “occupy territory or set the conditions for a regime change” in one of two major theaters. This is as close to a dictionary definition of hegemonic ambitions as we may find.

The main reason that the US does not withdraw from the region is finally clear. It is not in interests of protecting the region’s peace and security; it is simply an effort to preserve US hegemony. Whether the massive expenditure is effective in preserving US national interests and the nature of those interests requires a separate inquiry. But we need to begin by recognizing that perhaps it is time for the US to fold up its umbrella and go home. It’s time to give sunshine a chance in Northeast Asia.

James Reilly
Quaker International Affairs Representative, East Asia
American Friends Service Committee

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