Security Dynamics In East Asia

Posted by Admin on Monday, 1 May 2006 | Makalah, Opini

By Sayidiman Suryohadiprojo

Jakarta, 1 May 2006

The significance of East Asia in international security

First must be clarified what is here meant by East Asia. In this article East Asia is considered to be that part of the world which includes the following nations. In North East Asia are Japan, Russia, China, North and South Korea, Mongolia, while South East Asia includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Brunai Darussalam and the Philippines.

Since the early 20th century East Asia had played a significant role in international security. Although during the First World War (1914-1918) East Asia was only slightly touched by war events, but the Japan-Russian War (1904-1905) brought important changes in international politics. Japan’s victory became a cause for the rise of nationalism in colonized nations and their struggle for liberation and independence.

East Asia became an important zone of war in the Second World War (1939-1945). Japan’s early successes after it entered the war to attack the Western colonial powers was later reversed. After becoming the first victim of atomic bombs Japan had to surrender.

During the Cold War years (1945-1990), there were fighting wars in East Asia when the US and its allies fought their communist opponents in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. There was also the Independence War of Indonesia (1945-1950).

We can therefore say that from the early 20th century East Asia has experienced not a small amount of war fighting. That came because of the strategic value of the region combined with its large population and abundant natural resources.

Also today East Asia has to face serious security problems which might or might not erupt into wars. When the US was attacked on 11/9-2001, it responded by declaring a War on Terrorism with Al Qaeda and its leader Usama bin Laden as the main objectives. It was followed by an attack on Afghanistan and later Iraq. It looked as if the US decided to make the Middle East as its main strategic objective. But for the US with its aspirations of world supremacy the rise of China as a world power is a more important challenge . Al Qaeda’s terrorism indeed can hurt the US badly, not only physically and materially but more so psychologically, but in terms of strategy terrorism can only be a nuisance to the American ambitions. Terrorism will not be able to stop the American drive to dominate the world. Al Qaeda has neither capabilities to endanger the American economy, nor able to achieve a military and political victory on a strategic level.

China today is indeed not a cause of security problems for the US. But its developments as a state power demonstrates the rise of a very dynamic economy that can overtake the US economy and become the strongest economic power of the world. That will enable China to build strong military forces to become a first class military power. The combination of economy and military power will make it possible to enlarge political influence. It is therefore understandable that US strategists are considering China as a main challenge and are seriously planning for a possible confrontation.[1]

Increasing tensions between the US and China

There are today many indications that tensions between the US and China are increasing. The US is known to have troubles with China because of trade policy, human rights, globalization and other issues. In addition China is now entering a new phase in its international policies which is considered a danger to US basic national interests.

The US has accused China of keeping the rate of its currency, the renminbi , intentionally low to support its exports. That brought about a very huge imbalance in US-China trade with a surplus of USD 200 billion for China. The US has pressured China to rectify its currency rate. And angry US policy-makers are taking matters in their own hands by implementing protective trade measures. From its side, China stated that the US themselves are not less a cause for the imbalance of trade relations. If China retaliates against US unilateral actions, the result could be a trade war.

Now the US is very seriously concerned about a new turn of China’s international politics. Increased relations with many Latin American countries is by the US seen as an intrusion in America’s backyard. China’s relations with Brazil, a country with traditional close ties with the US, and other Latin American nations have dramatically improved. To fulfill its energy requirements China has invested more than USD 1 billion in Venezuela, a nation whose relations with the US are deteriorating. The US feels that it cannot tolerate a potential enemy become a dominant force in the Western Hemisphere.

China’s large needs for energy and other natural resources have driven it to approach many nations, including those which do not have cordial relations with the US. Like its investments in Sudan which reach about 40 per cent of the oil infrastructure. China has also improved its relations with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a man who has caused the anger of many Western nations including the US. And with Iran, one of the three nations designated by the US as the Axis of Evil , China concluded a USD 70 billion natural gas contract. All these developments in China’s foreign policy has made it a potential threat to US interests. According to the Newsweek magazine, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review released in February 2006, predicts that frictions with China will increase in the years ahead. There were efforts to reduce the tensions when the president of China, Hu Jintao, visited the US in April 2006. However, the outcome was different from what was aimed. Therefore, there is a strengthening of opinion in the US, that in the long-term, mild mannered Chinese leaders pose a greater challenge to America’s vision for the wider world than all the terrorist actions which now grab headlines . The steady increase of China’s defense budget is certainly strengthening US suspicions.

President Hu Jintao’s visit to the Middle East, where he concluded many agreements with Arab nations and stating China’s close feelings to them, including his deep concern for a positive outcome of the Palestinian problem, is indirectly harming US interests.

The increasing tensions in US-China relations will not likely to develop into a war. But considering the aggressive nature of many US leaders, in particular those now in power, it is reasonable to expect that the US will develop a strong attitude toward China, like implementing a containment policy. The just founded strategic alliance between the US and India is an indication to that direction. That attitude will definitely influence other security problems in the East Asian region.

The Taiwan Problem.

Taiwan became a security problem of East Asia after Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland to avoid total annihilation by the communist forces of Mao Zedong. Every Chinese government, Kuomintang as well as communist, has a One China policy and considers Taiwan an integral part of China. Mao and his successors will never consider their task finalized, as long as Taiwan is not integrated into China. But also Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang looked at Taiwan only as a temporary seat of their government. Their ultimate plan was to return to China.

However, both of them had not been successful to achieve their objective. Mao Zedong’s forces were not able to cross the Taiwan Strait to take Taiwan, reversely Chiang Kai-shek was also not able to conquer mainland China. The main reason was the United States, which as Chiang Kai-shek’s main supporter prevented Chinese communist forces from crossing the Taiwan Strait. But it also did not provide enough support to Chiang Kai-shek to counter-attack mainland China.

In the meantime new forces had developed in Taiwan, interested to make it an independent nation, separated from China. Of course, this development did not have the agreement of the Kuomintang and certainly not of the communist regime in Beijing. When the Kuomintang was still the ruling party in Taiwan, the independence movement could be effectively opposed. But the political party in favor of independence gained in strength and was later able to defeat the Kuomintang to become the ruling party in Taiwan. Chen Shui-bian, the leader of the new ruling party, became president and looked very eager to make a declaration of independence.

This change in Taiwan was against Beijing’s interests and China took severe measures to prevent a declaration of independence. Military forces around the Taiwan Strait were strengthened to warn Taiwan of the consequences of an independence declaration. It also produced legislation to legitimize the use of military forces to attack Taiwan, if there is a declaration of independence. The security situation around the Taiwan Strait became very tense, because in response to the Chinese military build-up the US also strengthened its military forces to support Taiwan if attacked by China.

China realizes the seriousness of the situation, but it cannot afford to remain passive and it must prevent a violation of its One China policy. The more so because there is no certainty that the US has enough leverage to prevent an independence declaration.

New developments in Taiwan might reduce tensions. There are indications that the popularity of Chen Shui-bian is weakening because of a stagnant economy and a failure to deliver on his party’s promises of change. His political opponent, Ma Ying-jeou, the new leader of the Kuomintang is now heavily favored to win the presidential election in 2008. The Kuomintang today aims for closer ties with Beijing and eventual unification. But Ma also realizes that the majority of the Taiwanese people enjoy their present condition of a de facto independence. He therefore states that unification could only happen with a democratic China.

If in 2008 Ma Ying-jeou really wins the presidential election, the Taiwan Problem might be close to its end. To achieve an acceptable solution, Beijing will definitely take the aspirations of the Taiwanese people into consideration. The concept of One China Two Political Systems will be implemented in such a manner that it will satisfy the majority of the Taiwanese people. It is not clear, however, how the US will react to such changes. A unification certainly strengthens China’s influence in East Asia which could mean a reduction of US control and its aim for supremacy.

It will also harm Japan’s interests because Japan’s oil supply line from the Middle East and South East Asia has to pass waters controlled by China. A security-conscious Japan will not tolerate such vulnerability. It is very important for East Asia how the US and Japan will look at such changes and what they are going to do.

The North Korean Problem.

Another problem in East Asia is the North Korean problem which is centered in the relations between the US and North Korea. US relations with North Korea have never been normal and until today there are no diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The US waged war against North Korea in 1950 when North Korea attacked South Korea. The United Nations intervened and it was the US which led the other nations to implement the UN sanctions. After the Korean War ended in 1953 relations between the US and North Korea remained antagonistic, with the US maintaining economic sanctions against Pyongyang for nearly fifty years. Relations worsened in the early 1990s when it was known that North Korea had a nuclear program and the US was thinking of bombing the weapons development facilities.

But the Clinton administration was willing to sit down with the North Koreans to conclude an agreement in 1994 which was called Agreed Framework. In this agreement North Korea was required to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for shipments of heavy fuel oil from the US and two light-water nuclear reactors to be built by an international consortium funded largely by Japan and South Korea. The US and North Korea also pledged to move toward full normalization of relations.

Another factor for reducing tensions in Korea was the policy adopted by Kim Dae Jung when he became president of South Korea in 1998. Contrary to his predecessors who were taking a hard-line policy against North Korea in their support for the US, Kim Dae Jung adopted a new policy called the “sunshine policy”. According to this policy South Korea favored a promotion of economic and social contacts between South and North.

However, the US delayed shipments of heavy oil and made only token moves toward normalizing relations with North Korea. There was also no sufficient US support to Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy”. Strengthening a siege mentality among North Koreans was the US decision to pursue a theater missile defense system and encouraging Japan to expand its military role in the region. There was a half-hearted commitment in Washington to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Many in the US administration expected the North Korean government to collapse before the promised light-water reactors would be operational in 2003. The US also only lifted the least important parts of the economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

The change of administration in the US from Clinton to Bush had a negative impact on the North Korean Problem. President Bush rebuffed Kim Dae Jung when he wanted Bush’s support for the “sunshine policy”. The new administration did not want to continue Clinton’s Korean policy, because it needed North Korea as a justification of a National Missile Defense program to implement a strategy of US supremacy. To worsen the situation the US started to call North Korea a rogue nation and part of the Axis of Evil, together with Iraq and Iran.

But also North Korea increased tensions when in August 1998 it fired a multistage missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, proving it can strike any part of Japan’s territory. It later admitted to have made an uranium enrichment program, to which Bush responded by cutting off supply of fuel oil.

The US wanted North Korea to terminate its nuclear program. To bring pressure to North Korea, the US acquired the support of the nations surrounding North Korea. These nations, namely South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, together with the US are trying to persuade North Korea to accept a peaceful solution of the problem. However, there are no indications that North Korea will easily give up its nuclear program.

During talks between North Korea, the US and China in Beijing on April 24, 2003 North Korea acknowledged its development of nuclear weapons. However, it was not willing to discuss dismantling its nuclear weapons until Washington has normalized relations, economic as well as diplomatic. Some people suggested that North Korea’s insistence on a formal US commitment to peace out, was a deep concern that President Bush was pursuing “regime change” in North Korea, just like he did in Iraq. The question is whether the US will sanction North Korea as stated by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and what form the sanctions will take. North Korea seems to be determined to defend itself, including to counter-attack the US mainland, if it is attacked. Considering the troubles the US is still facing in Iraq, it seems not likely that the US will apply military sanction against North Korea.

Japan’s Problems with its neighbors

Japan is facing delicate problems with its neighbors which could become a cause for security problems. The most serious one is Japan’s suspicions against North Korea with its weapons development which is considered to threaten Japan. North Korea’s multistage missile capability was aggravated when North Korea admitted that it had a stockpile of nuclear weapons. This danger could incite Japan to go nuclear and abandon its Peace Constitution with its Article 9 renouncing war and the threat or use of force. There is indeed a growing opinion among many Japanese people that their country should become a “normal” nation again. What they mean is that Japan should be able to defend itself effectively without a strong dependency on the US or other nations.

However, Japan’s neighbors, particularly China and Korea, will react very strongly to a Japanese rearmament. They will accuse Japan that it is returning to militarism and expansionism. That will certainly create a highly antagonistic atmosphere in East Asia. Even today China and Korea are very quick to criticize Japan for starting militarism. A visit by Japan’s prime minister to the Yakuzuni Shrine is enough reason for China and Korea to express their suspicions about Japan’s intentions. On the contrary, such criticism is considered very unrealistic and unfair by many Japanese people.

Japan’s problems with China and Korea is also sharpened by border disputes. Japan and China are arguing over the islands called by Japan Senkaku and by the Chinese Diaoyu Tai. With Korea Japan is having a dispute over Takeshima or Tokdo in the Korean language. These border disputes are very much influenced by the availability of gas and oil on these islands and the huge energy requirements of all these nations.

Japan has also a border dispute with Russia concerning the so called Northern Territory, including the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai. After the end of the Cold War Japan and Russia seem to be able to approach this border dispute more peacefully.

Japan’s problems with China is very much affected by the growing rift between the US and China, because of Japan’s defense alliance with the US. While its relations with the two Koreas will be influenced by the Korean Reunification. However, also very important is a possible change in Japan itself, namely if more and more people want Japan to be able to defend itself and to have the required military forces to do that.

Security Problems in South East Asia

Generally speaking, it can be said that security problems in South East Asia are less endangering the international situation compared to North East Asia. But that does not mean that there is less danger for the people in the region.

The main security problems in South East Asia today come from actions of people related to Al Qaeda and terrorism. A branch of Al Qaeda, called Jemaah Islamiyah, is operating in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Although far from endangering national sovereignty, these terrorist actions are really harming the security of the nations under attack. Jemaah Islamiyah aspires after establishing an Islam Khalifah, comprising large parts of South East Asia and Northern Australia. But there are no indications that this aspiration can effectively become a reality.

Apart from the terrorist threats Indonesia must also face security problems as a result of separatist movements in the country. There was the Aceh Problem in the past which has now been solved after a long process of physical encounters combined with dialogues between the Indonesian government and the separatist leaders. In addition to Aceh Indonesia must be very careful that the situation in West Papua or West Irian does not deteriorate and becomes a security problem.

Although it has not yet developed into a real problem, but South East Asian nations should be aware that the US-China controversy could have a negative impact on their region. There are border disputes between China and Malaysia, the Philippines , Taiwan and Vietnam about the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands. Southeast Asian nations should take care that these disputes do not make them US allies in its competition with China. US interests are certainly aiming at gaining a dominant position in South East Asia with the region’s geo-strategic importance and its wealth of natural resources. A strong US position in Southeast Asia would provide the US with an important means in its containment of China. That would close the link between India, which has now a strategic alliance with the US, and Japan as a traditional US ally.

China would definitely object to such moves. The existence of a large population of Chinese origin in Southeast Asia could become a significant factor for China’s movements to counter US domination. The Southeast Asian nations should be very careful not to become an arena of conflict and a victim of this growing controversy.

[1] Barnett, Thomas PM, The Pentagon’s New Map, War and Peace in the 21st Century, G.P.Putnam’s Sons , New York 2004

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