Thursday, May 10, 2007

How the US is sparking an arms race in North East Asia

In a time when countries all over the globe feel the need to genuflect at the Washington altar before committing to any policy — and those who don’t are quickly labeled rogues — it would perhaps be in our interest to analyze the content of the White House dictates.

Leaving aside the Orwellian farce that US policy on Iraq has become, Washington’s rhetoric as pertains to North East Asia, and Taiwan in particular, reveals a leviathan that clearly has no idea how to articulate, let alone formulate, its long-term policies. More often than Taiwanese care to be reminded, US policymakers have held on to the principle of a “peaceful” solution to the dragging Taiwan Strait tensions. Whether the terminology comes from the White House itself, the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom or the countless talking heads at the various think tanks peppering Washington, “status quo,” “one China,” “strategic ambiguity” and whatever euphemism is de rigueur at the time, all the rhetoric posits that somehow, at some indistinct point in time, China and Taiwan shall miraculously drop the gloves and make up. Speaking earlier this week at a forum on US-Japan security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, former commander of US forces in the Pacific Dennis Blair added his voice to the above-mentioned chorus by saying that “the way to solve [regional festering problems] by peaceful means is to ensure that the use of military force by either the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or North Korea will be unsuccessful ... and therefore peaceful means will be the way to solve [them].”

This is all nice and well, but the problem is that parallel to all this abundance of “peaceful” talk is the forceful push by Washington for Taiwan to boost its defenses through the procurement of US-made weapons — most but certainly not all defensive in nature — and increasing anger over Taipei’s inability to unlock the funds necessary to do so. Simultaneously, and again a position echoed by Blair, Washington has been calling upon Japan to play a more proactive security role in the region, to such an extent that the White House is no longer averse to allowing Tokyo to alter the very peaceful Constitution that the US imposed upon Japan in the wake of its defeat in World War II.

The reason behind Washington’s change of heart on Japan, however, isn’t altruistic. In fact, in a different world, Washington would rather keep Tokyo under its heel, as it seeks to prevent countries that could at some point in the future challenge it militarily from doing so (a policy initially formulated by the embattled Paul Wolfowitz as the Cold War was winding down and appropriated for official policy a few years ago). But given the current template, with US forces stretched close to the limit and troop withdrawal from Iraq or otherwise, signs that they will remain engaged in the Middle East for years to come, Washington needs “dependable” allies — or proxies — to do its bidding in other regions of the world. For North East Asia, Japan is quickly becoming the US’ indispensable forward guard. Hysterical perceptions from certain quarters of the Washington establishment vis-à-vis the China “threat” aside, and in spite of the “peaceful” resolution rhetoric, what Washington is accomplishing in North East Asia is a militarization of the region, an outcome it conveniently blames on a Chinese military build-up.

No one, however, ever asks whether Beijing’s modernization of its military might not be in response to the sense of encirclement that the bolstered US-Japan alliance has engendered.

From Washington’s perspective, the push for militarization stems from two drivers: lucrative contracts for its flowering military-industrial complex and, the one it more readily admits to and uses in its rhetoric, military deterrence. Regardless of the efficiency of the types of weapons Washington has been pressing on Taiwan — raising the question often results in accusations of Taiwan “freeloading” on defense — the pressure is on Washington, through various defense lobbies, to complete the transaction.

Past experience, with Saudi Arabia providing a lurid example, shows that billions of dollars of US weapons cannot guarantee the security of a state. When, in 1990, Iraqi forces threatened to press forward into the Kingdom after invading Kuwait, Riyadh found itself incapable of mounting a proper defense and nearly begged Washington to come to its rescue (after first turning down Osama Bin Laden’s offer to do so). Given the force disparities between China and Taiwan, it is unlikely that a few additional air defense systems, along with some submarines, would represent so formidable a deterrent as to make Beijing think twice before launching an attack. US defense analysts debating this issue with regard to Taiwan (or any of the small states in the Middle East to which the US has opened its arms catalogues in the past years, culminating in an unprecedented shopping spree in Abu Dhabi in February), sadly, have distinguished themselves by their silence.

Japan, on the other hand, does hold the potential to mount a formidable military. Thanks to the size of its economy and a stunningly healthy military with an estimated US$45 billion budget and one of the world’s most advanced navies, a Japan freed of its pacific Constitution and unleashed as a regional peacekeeper would be a tremendous force and, in Washington’s view, a powerful deterrent to Chinese (and North Korean) aggression.

The flaw in Washington’s strategy of militarizing the region, however, is that it is predicated on a flawed understanding of deterrence, with its proponents having developed the concept during an altogether different era — the Cold War. Back then, deterrence worked mostly because failure to prevent war ran the risk of resulting in nuclear annihilation for both sides of the divide, the West and the Soviet Union. The reason why you are able to read this blog today has much to do with the fact that rational decision-makers chose to abide by the logic of deterrence from the perspective of the nuclear threat.

Absent the threat of annihilation, however, deterrence loses much of its effect and is even more fickle when one of the belligerents is the size of China, with numerous key cities and multifarious strategic nodes. In fact, in conventional warfare, an arms race — such as the one that has been sparked by the US, Taiwan and China — creates its own upwards dynamics, but it does not make the threat of war any less. In fact, it only exacerbates the likelihood of error resulting in military exchanges. The more players are part of the conflict equation, the greater the quantity and complexity of the weapons involved, the likelier that, at some point, human or systems error will lead to an accident with terrible consequences — and this is before we even add political tensions resulting from such conflict accelerators as nationalism and disputed territory to the mix.

Two belligerents armed with nothing but slingshots cannot do much damage, accidental or otherwise. Four belligerents equipped with advanced systems involving thousands of missiles, with intricate, shifting alliance structures, however, and any mishap can be catastrophic.

If Washington means what it says about facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan Strait conflict, it had fain reconsider the dangerous arms race it is on the verge of sparking in North East Asia. Faith in conventional deterrence amid a modern arms race simply comports too many risks.

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