East Asia, Infected by a New Arms Race, Risks Deadly Miscalculations

Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. He teaches at UCLA. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

The determined attempt of East Asian nations to bolster their military security in the face of perceived or real threats is creating a rash of strategic insecurities. Looked at from this perspective, North Korea's brandishing of military options seems more contemporary East Asian than old-line Stalinist. Sure, the North Koreans are preparing to fire their second medium-range missile within a year. But reliance on the military gesture is increasingly characteristic of Asia in general.

Take South Korea, invariably painted as the victim of Northern tantrums. But despite the current government's "sunshine" policy of diplomatic engagement, it's organizing its own buildup. Seoul's recent test of a new rocket alarmed even its closest ally, Washington. China, too, has been improving its rocket arsenal. Taiwan wants in on a missile defense system with the United States. Even Japan, pacifist since the end of World War II, looks to be preparing to accept a missile system that until recently it wanted no part of.

Each nation justifies each of these moves in terms of national security. But is anyone feeling more secure now?

South Korea practically has to sleep with the enemy because Seoul, its national capital city, is so near to North Korea's rocket and mortar batteries. So, while the world awaits Pyongyang's response to the peace initiative of special U.S. envoy William Perry, Seoul has been testing its own missiles. They are not defensive ones, however, but offensive--deadly surface-to-surface little darlings designed to defend by brute deterrence. One test in April launched a rocket with a potential range farther than that agreed upon in a long-standing accord between Seoul and Washington.

Now, consider the impact of both North and South Korean tests on Japan's equanimity. No wonder that, constitutional limitations notwithstanding, Tokyo is linking arms with Washington to develop a new missile defense system for the region. Theater Missile Defense, it is called. Does anyone feel safer yet because Tokyo is enhancing its military "security" with so-called defensive missiles?

Then consider Beijing. Its fear is that any "defensive" missile umbrella designed jointly by the U.S. and Japan must be aimed at them. China finds the prospect of a rearmed Japan especially unnerving--and any missile defense umbrella among the United States, Japan and Taiwan completely unacceptable. It took considerable umbrage at the recent statement by Japanese parliamentarian Taku Yamazaki that Japan would support the United States if China decides to liberate Taiwan by force. China, remember, resents outside interference in its bilateral efforts to induce Taiwan to become part of greater China. Beijing is increasing its missile arsenal, developing technologies aimed at neutralizing enemy satellite surveillance and, worse yet, reaching out to Moscow. "If the concerns that motivated the initial stride toward a Sino-Russian strategic alliance escalate," worries Taiwan-based regional military expert Chin Chu-Kwang, "the stage may well be set for another Cold War."

With all this going on, the U.S. Congress would make an idiotic contribution to the arms-buildup frenzy by requiring, in legislation, the Pentagon to cooperate with Taiwan directly. Such overt linkage would go well beyond the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. And it would run counter to the spirit of the three historic Sino-U.S. communiques acknowledging the unity of China. In response, even Taiwanese sources, who would otherwise be utterly delighted with any help Congress wants to give, worry that such an amazingly unsubtle move would prompt China to plot a preemptive surprise military assault on Taiwan. Any Chinese buildup threatens not just Taiwan: "Japan now assumes that China's military capability and trends," points out Chin, who was a former fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, "pose a potential long-term threat to Japanese interests."

In the mad rush to enhance military security, individual national decisions are creating an overheated madhouse of potential miscalculations. On top of all this, Washington's advocacy of missile defense systems that are ambiguous in their intent and destabilizing in their effect only adds to the insecurity. What the United States needs to do is to convene a well-prepared series of high-profile Asian arms-reduction conferences in Washington--and soon. For the net effect of the rush to attain new levels of security is to make East Asia all the more insecure. What looms is an unintended--and horrifying--drift toward war. No one in Asia will feel any safer without a new Asian diplomacy emphasizing arms control, not arms buildups. Without that, it's paranoia time in East Asia.

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