The Perils of Being No.1

East Asian Trends and U.S. Policies to 2025

February 17, 2000


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The cumulative impact of U.S. global and regional policies and behavior, a broad regional trend of emerging, multi-faceted national self-assertiveness, and regional economic dynamics add up to an East Asia in ferment that will increasingly test, if not challenge, U.S. interests and policies in the Asia-Pacific over the coming generation. The degree to which U.S. interests and current policies are likely to challenged--and the nature of the challenge -- will depend in large measure on the outcome of China's unprecedented transformation, the cosmic uncertainty casting a shadow over East Asia's future.

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For most of the past decade, East Asia has been a largely static security environment in a slow-motion evolution towards still uncertain new patterns of intra-Asian and trans-Pacific relations. As evident in the accelerating pace of inter-Asian diplomacy (both bilateral and multilateral) and in the political and military patterns of major East Asian actors, there has been a dynamic flow of activity designed to cushion each actor against an uncertain future of the Asia-Pacific. While the economic crisis has had a sobering and humility-inducing effect, it has perhaps slowed, but not altered these patterns. Amidst strategic and economic uncertainty, the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed a torrent of summitry (Sino-Russian, Sino-Japanese, Korean-Japanese, Korean-Chinese, East Asia-Europe) and other diplomatic and territorial rumblings over the past several years. The diplomacy highlights a fluid security environment currently defined by increasingly sophisticated hedging strategies on the part of the major powers in the Pacific. However, these trends could harden into new geostrategic patterns rapidly if potential strategic shocks occur: the reunification of Korea, a conflict over Taiwan, and possible reactions to U.S. missile defense deployment decisions.

There is a discernible shift in the character of East Asian uncertainty about the future from that which existed in the early 1990s. At the end of the Cold War the largest concern was a fear that absent its global mission, the U.S. would begin to reduce its engagement and security presence in Asia. This was combined with looming concern about the emergence of China. In recent years, concern about the meaning of a successfully modernized China has grown more acute. Indeed, there is a tendency to discount the present for the future in regard to China, with many acting towards Beijing as though it were already a multi-dimensional global power. But Asian views of the U.S. have become more wary and complex in new and paradoxical ways:

  • there is a broad recognition that in every measure of national power, U.S. pre-eminence is clear and growing-and that the U.S. role as guardian of global and regional order has, if anything become more central to stability;
  • yet there is palpable and increasing discomfort with this reality, as the U.S. is viewed as a somewhat capricious actor, (a rogue superpower? ) frequently driven more by narrow domestic interests and ideological imperatives than common goals or evident strategy. The perception is reinforced by the U.S. confusing power with norms of behavior and its willingness to impose its values by force in some instances. This is exemplified by U.S. rejections of the CTBT, the Kyoto Protocol, the Intl. criminal Court, while pressing others to approve and the NATO bombing of Yugoslav absent UN mandate);
  • East Asians see a lack of sustained focus on the region and a renewed Eurocentrism manifested in NATO expansion and long-term obligations in the Balkans, while the locus of both economic dynamism and potential major conflicts is in Asia, most notably, the Korean Peninsula, China-Taiwan, and India-Pakistan.

At the same time, the regional security environment has become more complex, with security challenges and foreign policies becoming more inter-active over the past several years. The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in March 1999 was a deliciously illustrative example of how disparate strands in values, interests and geography can intersect. What in the U.S. was widely viewed as a humanitarian intervention against Yugoslavia over its behavior towards Kosovo, was viewed discomfitingly as an idiosyncratic, unilateral transgression of sovereignty-absent a UN mandate-by U.S. allies such as Japan and Korea as well as others in East Asia. Moreover, the alleged doctrine of humanitarian intervention was seen as particularly disconcerting by China, raising the spectre of intervention in Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang. Central Asian states bordering Xinjiang are all members of NATO's Partnership for Peace and have been the venue of US-Central Asian joint military exercises proximate to China's Western borders conducted without prior notification. Another example is the unanticipated impact of North Korea's missile program, which catalyzed a new security assertiveness in Japan which in turn, adds an element of tension to Sino-Japanese relations.

The discomfort with U.S. idiosyncratic behavior is mitigated by the widely acknowledged reality that there is no viable alternative to the U.S. as a counterweight to China. It is further mitigated by the continued importance of East Asian trade and investment with the U.S., roughly $530 billion in annual two-way trade and some $100 billion in Asian direct investment in the U.S. and vice-versa. The net result is a paradoxical situation with many actors in the region seeking to cushion themselves against American unilateralism, even as they rely on the U.S. security presence for stability and find an unspoken sense of reassurance in the display of HiTech U.S. military power. Thus East Asia is displaying varying degrees of bandwagoning and balancing at the same time:

  • China has articulated a competing vision of the future in which there is a greatly diminished American role in Asia, most notably in its 1998 Defense White Paper. While Beijing seeks a dominant role in the region, at the same it has bet its future on integration into the global economy and has increasingly participated in global (e.g. WTO, NPT, CTBT) and regional (e.g. ARF, APEC) institutions. Yet even as it seeks cooperative relations with the U.S., its military modernization and planning centers on attaining capabilities to prevail in a Taiwan conflict in which the U.S. intervenes;
  • Japan's national desire to carve out its own identity as a major power in its own right (e.g. Asian monetary fund initiative, increasingly independent defense capabilities, Constitutional revision debate) playing more of a leadership role in the region occurs even as it simultaneously enhances the U.S.-Japan security alliance;
  • South Korea's remarkable middle power diplomacy, evidenced most recently in the unprecedented January 2000 visit of Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian and South Korea's complex relationship with Beijing. This, even as Seoul deepens its political and military relationship with Japan in unprecedented ways, and remains dependent on the U.S. for its core security.
  • North Korea has managed to be at once, charity case, continuing threat to, and new partner of, the United States. While developing ties to the U.S., it has maintained its conventional military assets and continued to develop its WMD and delivery systems. At the same time, the DPRK has renewed its ties to China and Russia (witness Russian FM Ivanov's February trip to Pyongyang), while expanding ties to Italy, Australia, and the Philippines and renewing normalization talks with Japan;
  • the collective desire of smaller and middle powers, particularly ASEAN states, for East Asia to be more independent actors carrying more weight in the councils of global governance, even as they depend wholly on the U.S. military presence and commitment to assure security and U.S. markets for exports. The November 1999 ASEAN+3 meeting, replete with fantastic visions of EU-type regional arrangements for a free trade area and monetary union, was an expression of this hope, as was support for an Asian Monetary Fund.

Consequences of Asia's Emergence

This duality of Asian perspectives and sense, however unrealistic at present, of a tilt towards pan-Asian identity and interests reflects the beginnings of a qualitative shift in established patterns of relations. The cumulative impact of a generation of dynamic economic growth, notwithstanding the 1997-98 economic crisis, are waxing nationalisms seeking validation as fledgling middle class societies. The Manila ASEAN+3 meeting was but one manifestation of this trend. At the same time there was a surrealistic aspect to the Manila meeting in that regional tensions-whether it is Sino-Japanese disputes, ostensibly over history, territorial disputes such as the Spratly islands, Taiwan's identity politics and quest for international space, or Indonesian-Malaysian rivalry are all expressions of these waxing nationalisms beginning to bump up against each other.

It is worth briefly summarizing other expressions of Asia's emergence and its gravity in the world system, a regional economy that in the space of a single generation went from 4% of world GDP in 1960 to 24% by 1995. There is no shortage of telltale signs of the burgeoning technological, financial and strategic heft of modern East Asia. Beijing recently launched its first orbiting space vehicle, prelude to a manned space program (with Russian assistance); South Korea is building a satellite launch capability. Greater China (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan) Japan and Korea together hold some $700 billion in foreign reserves, more than half the world's total, and three of the world's ten largest economies. The recent earthquake in Taiwan threatened the world computer industry with semiconductor shortages, as the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan threatened liquid crystal computer displays. China alone is the world's 2nd largest consumer of energy-though its per capita energy consumption is ten times less than that of the U.S.!

With regard to American interests, these trends crosscut in different directions. On the plus side, an important consequence of East Asia's success has been a broad trend towards democratization over the past 15 years: the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and of late, Indonesia. It could be argued that structural economic and political change in Japan, in part generational in nature, is also deepening its democracy, in particular, adding a new dimension of civil society and political accountability. While this regional trend removes a potential values conflict and is a source of public support for U.S. Asia policy, it also means friends and allies whose respective political systems are more unwieldy to deal with. This is manifested in a variety of ways such as Japan's posture in regard to base and host nation issues with Japan, and to a lesser extent, with Korea, where the No Gun Ri episode and desire for more capable ballistic missiles(beyond MTCR limits) has introduced emotional new irritants in US-Korean relations.

The trajectory of intra-Asian trade and investment patterns are another important trend that are likely to have a crosscutting impact on U.S.interests. While the U.S. remains the first or second largest market for most East Asian nations, in relative terms, East Asian trade with the U.S. is a diminishing portion of the region's trade. In 1990, the U.S. market accounted for a third or more of Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, ASEAN exports. That has gradually diminished to the 20-25% range, with the exception of China, which is dependent on the U.S. market for more than 35% of its exports. At the same time, intra-Asian trade continues to grow, now roughly 50% of total Asian trade.

Asia-Middle East Energy Nexus

One important economic trend with strategic implications that is woefully underconsidered are East Asia's energy patterns which are creating pulls that may lead to a divergence of East Asian and U.S. interests. Already, Asia has a substantial oil deficit. In 1998, the Asia-Pacific imported 11.5 million barrels a day of the 19.1 million barrels it consumed daily, with imports rising to 12 million b/pd in 1999. This is amounts to about 62% of total petroleum products consumed in the region. Asia-Pacific import needs are projected to approach 17-19 million b/pd by 2010, and the Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts those import needs to rise to 24 million b/pd by 2020, possibly up to 31 mil. B/pd if high end economic growth projections are realized. China's import needs alone are projected to grow to roughly 3 million b/pd by 2010, and as much as 5-6 million b/pd by 2020.[1] Even discounting for the region's economic crisis, by 2020, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, Asian oil demand will still grow two to three times faster than that of the industrialized West.[2]

The vast majority of East Asian oil imports-and much of its rapidly growing natural gas consumption-will come from the Middle East. The workings of the highly efficient globalized oil market tend to be based largely on transport costs. This has meant a bifurcated pattern of supply, with the U.S. obtaining most of its oil imports from the Atlantic Basin and/or Western Hemisphere (North Sea offshore West Africa, Mexico, Canada, Latin America. Already some two-thirds of Persian Gulf crude is exported to Asia, and an oil-thirsty Asia increasingly depends on Gulf/Middle East crude, already nearly 80% of its imports. It was a sign of the times when Chinese President Jiang Zemin made the first ever trip by a top Chinese leader to Saudi Arabia last November (declaring a "strategic oil partnership"). Thus, a burgeoning Asia-Middle East energy nexus is taking shape. This appears a long-term trend and permanent feature of the oil market. Thus far, it has not altered any strategic ties beyond a thickening commercial relationship with Asians investing in upstream Middle East, while Gulf states invest in downstream Asia, both designed to lock in supply and customers, respectively. What the geopolitical implications are of the burgeoning Asia-Middle East energy nexus is an open question explored further below.

Diplomatic and Strategic Trends

The diplomatic and strategic trends in the region range from efforts to attain more independent postures within the framework of a cooperative or alliance relationship (Japan) to the prospect of a peer competitor (China). The military capacities of key actors, particularly China and Japan, which are undergoing qualitative improvements, both foreshadow and raise the stakes of prospective strategic competition. The challenges to U.S. policies and interests range from prospective strategic rivalry to those of adjusting to a less dominant role with more equal partners, transitioning from de facto quai-imperial metropole to extra-regional balancer without risking stability or diminishing American interests.

The China Factor

The most stark and consequential potential divergence of interests with the United States arises from China's continuing military modernization, its irredentist claims and preferences for a Sino-centric regional order. Two decades of double-digit growth have moved China's closer to its highest national goal: economic modernization, the foundation of its 21st century version of the Meiji Restoration slogan: Rich Country, Strong Army. Beijing's long-term objective is to lay the foundation for becoming a multi-dimensional great power by attaining a new level of "comprehensive national strength" - the sum of economic, technological and military power which together define a country's international standing.

Yet for China, the terrible symbolism of U.S. bombing its embassy in Belgrade underscored its weakness. It also illuminated the degree to which China's core assumptions about international trends(e.g. multipolar world, U.S. in decline, China ascending) have been shattered since the mid-1990s. The Yugoslav war, revealing still more improvements in U.S. precision guided weapons since the Gulf War, deepened China's perception of a growing technology gap and sense of frustration and impotence. Such military prowess, combined with the strengthening of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and a penchant towards values-based intervention has left China frustrated and overwhelmed by U.S. power. At the same time, India's moves to become a full nuclear weapons state has still further complicated China's security calculus. The net effect of the 'Kosovo shock" has been to accelerate the pace of military modernization, particularly in HiTech areas such as cruise missiles and laser weapons, and its strategic and political cooperation with Russia.

This reality reflects China's contemporary conundrum: its highest goal of economic modernization makes it highly dependent on the one power that can impede its aspirations to be the dominant power in East Asia. At the same time, the U.S. also stands between China and its reclamation of sovereignty disrupted by Japanese and Western imperialism during its 150 years of humiliation - reunification with Taiwan and its historic claims in the South China Sea. Indeed, there is a lingering fear that the U.S. is quietly erecting a structure of containment around China's periphery to mitigate its modernization and limit its freedom of action.

The March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis reinforced China's fears. The unanticipated arrival of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups off Taiwan dramatized the military-technological gap while bringing into sharp relief the possibility of a conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan. The fact that one month later, the U.S. and Japan announced new defense guidelines updating the US-Japan alliance, began to deepen Beijing's concerns that not only was multipolarity not the dominant trend, but that the U.S. bilateral security network was reinforcing U.S. pre-eminence. One important aspect of the Taiwan strait crisis worth noting is that only Japan and Australia publicly supported the U.S. gunboat diplomacy. This reflects the ultimate strategic nightmare for East Asia: having to choose between the U.S. and China. Nonetheless, the presence of the two carrier task forces were a sobering reminder to Beijing of the magnitude e of U.S. military power in the Pacific.

To balance its near-term economic goals and longer-term security agenda, China has evolved its own hedging strategy, one beginning with efforts to neutralize potential threats along its enormous borders. As it has evolved, two phases are discernible: 1989-96, and 96-present. Since the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen tragedy, and ensuing distancing from the West, China has crafted a diplomatic strategy designed to solidify ties with its neighbors. In the early 1990s it normalized relations with Singapore and Indonesia. It has cultivated ties to ASEAN nations, forging particularly close ties to Thailand, Malaysia and Burma. Beijing made progress on border talks and trade with New Delhi, and enhanced political and military/technical ties to Russia.

In response to its predicament, China has also increasingly sought to foster its own security network as a counter-hedging strategy. This has taken the form of bilateral 'partnerships' and new concepts of multilateral security structures. At a conceptual level, since 1997, Beijing has begun to articulate what it calls a "New Security Concept," as part of an effort to discredit and attenuate U.S. alliances and ostensibly replace the de facto it with a collective security framework. As spelt out in its July 1998 Defense White Paper the new concept incorporates its emphasis on non-interference and respect for sovereignty embodied in its traditional five principles of peaceful coexistence. Added to this is the notion that, "Security is mutual, and security dialogues and cooperation should be aimed at promoting trust, not creating confrontations..."[3] This concept has been largely a rhetorical and diplomatic device, and has not prevented China from demonstrations of military force in instances such as in the South China Sea. The most conspicuous manifestation of this approach has been its "cooperative strategic partnership" with Russia. Though still largely a military supply relationship, for both countries it has become therapeutic and for the U.S., potentially obstructionist: Sino-Russian summit communiques routinely denounce US "hegemonism" and call for "multipolarization of the world and the establishment of a new international order."[4] But fledgling Sino-Russian strategic cooperation is discernible and appears to have grown significantly in response to the US/NATO Yugoslavia war: Beijing and Moscow have increasingly found common cause in denouncing U.S. efforts to amend or scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and build ballistic missile defenses; some 2000 Russian technicians are employed in Chinese military research institutes; joint use of Russia's GLONASS GPS system, which would aid PRC targeting is under negotiation. In 1997, China has signed protocols with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikstan governing armed forces along borders which was hailed by Beijing as a "new model for security." More recently China has signed bilateral amity and friendship accords with Thailand, Malaysia.[5] Together, these individual elements are aimed at stabilizing the international environment in East Asia, advancing China's national goal of economic modernization, bolstering China's strategic capabilities, and attenuating the United States position in the region.

Beijing's assertive diplomacy has unfolded in parallel with its conventional and nuclear military modernization program. A series of recent acquisitions and deployments have the effect of significantly raising the cost of conflict in the one scenario where direct military confrontation is imaginable - Taiwan - as well as reducing U.S. freedom of action. Beijing has begun to acquire some Su27 fighters, along 200 to be assembled in China under co-production from Russia. In addition, during his December 1996 visit to Moscow, Premier Li Peng finalized a deal to purchase two Sovremenny class missile-carrying destroyers for $400 million each, (the first was delivered in February 2000) along with Sunburn anti-ship missiles. These ships were developed in 1980 by the Soviets to counter U.S. aircraft carriers, and the PLA Navy likely sees such hardware as necessary if they are planning to counter U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in the future. Moreover, Beijing has signed a $2 billion contract for some 30-60 150 Sukhoi Su-30MK multi-role fighters, and is negotiating to buy more advanced Su37 models. China has also deployed some 200 M-9 and M-ll missiles in Fujian province, across the strait, and U.S. projections are that Beijing may deploy some 700 missiles there by 2005-6. It will be at least another 10-15 years before China obtains significant air and amphibious force capability to sustain force projection beyond its borders.[6] At the same time, China is the only nuclear weapons state quantitatively and qualitatively expanding its arsenal, with the DF-31 mobile missile near deployment and the DF-41 likely to be deployed by 2010. These medium and long-range missiles can carry multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).

For U.S. interests, these first fruits of Chinese military modernization already complicate and raise the cost of any U.S. military intervention in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan strait, the most likely, if not the only, scenario that can be envisioned pitting the U.S. and China in a direct military clash. In broad terms, its incremental development of force projection capabilities is beginning to circumscribe U.S. freedom of action in the Pacific. In its diplomacy, China is positioning itself to influence the future of the Korean Peninsula and the security architecture in Northeast Asia. In Southeast Asia it is accentuating a geopolitical divide between continental and peninsular ASEAN states. The challenge to both Washington and Beijing is to avoid a cycle of action-reaction that pushes the relationship in an adversarial direction and to maintain the ambiguity of their respective hedging strategies until the outcome of China's transformation is evident.

Japan's New Nationalism

While China is an important factor catalyzing a remarkable evolution in Japan's strategic culture, the quickening pace of change in Japan's national security policies are unfolding in a larger crucible of social, economic and political ferment. These changes come as a decade of economic stagnation has demonstrated to most Japanese that the "development state" post-WW2 model in Japan has been outgrown and is being superseded gradually in a process of structural change. In broad terms, Japan's evolving security policies reflect identity politics writ large - in redefining individuals relationship with society, localities relations to Tokyo,, as well as Japan's regional and global role. It is tempting shorthand to think of it is Japan becoming a more normal nation.

In the security realm, it reflects the perception of a Northeast Asian security environment more menacing than during the Cold War, a perception fostered by North Korean behavior during the 1990s as well as a sense of defining a Japanese international role and personality.. North Korea's first missile test, into the Sea of Japan in May 1993, hinted at Japan's vulnerability to ballistic missile attack, and the possibility of conflict on the Peninsula, potentially involving Japan, was brought into sharp relief during the Spring 1994 nuclear crisis. In terms of mass public opinion, Pyongyang's August 1998 Taepo Dong test over Japanese territory was roughly equivalent to the impact of the Soviet Sputnik launch on the United States in 1958. Similarly, beginning around 1993-94, Japanese perceptions of China began to change. Prior to this time, Japan considered economic aid, trade and investment to assist China's economic development and to foster internal political stability as adequate to manage China. But the cumulative effect of two decades of double-digit economic growth - particularly set against the background of Japan's own decade-long economic stagnation-began to raise questions about the balance in Sino-Japanese relations and the limits of "checkbook diplomacy."

These concerns were reinforced by China's accelerating military modernization program, the 1995 controversy over nuclear testing and by its increasingly assertive behavior on issues relating to sovereignty: the 1995 occupation of Mischief Reef South China Sea, actions -- and persisting contention-over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, and most dramatically, during the 1996 Taiwan's Straits crisis. At the same time, China has repeatedly warned of the destabilizing effects of Japan's participation with the U.S. in ballistic missile defense R&D systems The implication that China was actively targeting Japan came as a shock to many Japanese. The palpable discord in the October 1998 Sino-Japanese Summit, with Japan refusing to give Jiang Zemin the full and perpetual apology demanded as the price of Sino-Japanese harmony was a reflection of Japan's new wariness of China.

Faced with this set of challenges, Japan moved initially to strengthen its alliance with the United States, which has been - and continues - to serve as the foundation of its diplomacy and security policy. At the same, Tokyo has moved towards bolstering its independent military capabilities and coterminously, sought to forge an independent diplomatic posture and solidify its economic network in the region. Thus, we have seen the April 1996 reaffirmation and updating of the U.S.-Japan alliance during Clinton's visit to Tokyo, the new Defense Guidelines defining Japan's support role in a regional crisis, Japan's decision to build an indigenous intelligence satellite, joint research on theater missile defenses and moves toward attaining air refueling capabilities.

It is worth noting that it is not a question of Japan "rearming" as the often heard refrain goes. Japan already has the second or third largest defense budget in the world, $45 billion (depending on the value of the Yen). Even without the U.S., possess the most capable HiTech air and naval forces in East Asia, including F-15J F-4EJ fighter interceptors, E-2C Hawkeye early warning, AWACS, a fleet of destroyers, Aegis Cruisers, and 100 P3C anti-submarine patrol planes, and a C3I system inter-operable with that of the U.S.[7] In addition, there are a host of areas where Tokyo is creating an independent defense base: Japan's decision to pursue an independent satellite reconnaissance capability; its satellite launch program also gives it a potential ballistic missile capability; it has four of the world's most advanced supercomputers, and its plutonium reprocessing program makes it in the eyes of some, a virtual nuclear power.

But perhaps more important is the 'software' of Japanese new assertiveness. The defense guidelines issue is part of a larger Japanese debate about the limits of Japan's willingness to engage in military action, indeed, over the interpretation and/or revision of its Constitution. This in turn, is a source of Chinese anxiety, particularly that Japan is laying the foundation for an independent military capability under the U.S. security umbrella. In any case, Prime Minister Obuchi popularity went up when Japanese ships fired their first shots in anger in March 1999 at intruding North Korean spy board. In several opinion polls over the past three years, a majority favored revising the constitution. And in terms of outward trappings, The Diet passed legislation making official the hinomaru flag and making the Kimigayo the national anthem. Japan's drift toward a posture of collective self-defense is reflected in the July 1999 Diet decision to establish a commission to study revision of the constitution.

While Japan's alliance with the U.S. is viewed as critical leverage in any counter-balancing strategy, the days of gaiatsu, of a top-down command US-Japan relationship are in eclipse. Japan is aware it has no alternative to the U.S.-Japan alliance. But it is seeking a more equal partnership, one that is likely to have growing sets of issues on which there is disagreement (e.g. Burma, Iran). At the same time, Japan's assertive diplomacy is aimed at countering the possibility of declining U.S. political/military involvement in East Asia. To this end, Japan has made some headway in repairing problems of the past. In October 1998, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi extended to South Korea's visiting president, Kim Dae Jung and agreed to a "cooperative 21st partnership."[8] Signs of a Japanese-Korean rapprochement are visible in economic and security relations. A month later, Obuchi's visit to Moscow yielded the Moscow Declaration of a "Creative partnership between Japan and Russia" and a reaffirmation of commitments, made previously by President Yeltsin and then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, to reach agreement on a peace treaty and on the future of the disputed Northern Territories.[9] Both Japanese efforts were designed with China very much in mind. In the case of Korea, Tokyo has sought to influence future geopolitical directions Korea may take; in the case of Russia, a range of cooperative endeavors, particularly regarding oil and gas from Sakhalin and also eventually from Irkutsk, bolster Russia and offer it alternatives to strategic cooperation with China. Japan's Russia policy is part of a larger "Eurasian diplomacy" extended to Central Asia with oil and gas resources as much the objective as geopolitical positioning.

In Southeast Asia, throughout the 1990s Japan has worked to strengthen ASEAN and its institutions. Japan's recent overtures to Burma, which put it at odds with the U.S. again appear aimed at counter-balancing Chinese influence. While Japan has become more realistic about the limits of current efforts at multilateralism over the past 3-4 years, its support for various multilateral ventures reflects a broader aspect of Japan's hedging strategy-the fostering of new multilateral regional institutions to compensate for any diminished American role while seeking to showcase Tokyo's role. Thus, Tokyo has called for a six-party forum in Northeast Asia (US, Japan, Russia China, North and South Korea.) Similarly, Japan's proactive response to the Asian financial crisis was in this vein, proposing an Asian Fund in October 1997 as the Thai Baht foundered. And Japan had no qualms about actively participating in the ASEAN+3 meeting in Manila contemplating an EU-like future for the Asia-Pacific.

In sum, Japan is no less committed to the U.S.-Japan alliance than at any time in the past, but it is more assertive in redefining its role within the alliance, it is building an independent defense industrial base, and is positioning itself for potential futureshocks that could render the U.S. force presence in Japan more problematic if not the alliance itself. This is not to suggest any sudden or visible breakpoint or even a strategic distancing. Rather, in the current environment of universal hedging and incremental change, it is largely a matter of alliance management problems and will require more creative, flexible approaches on the part of Washington (e.g. 15 year base agreement with a renewal clause based on the security situation, or joint use of bases).

It is possible to point to similar types of behavior on the part of South Korea and ASEAN. But for the scope of this paper, it is the U.S., Japan and China whose relationships and behavior largely define the security environment. Suffice it to say that at most, Korea is a middle power who can be a factor in the strategic balance depending on which direction it tilts, and ASEAN security is largely derivative of Northeast Asian security, that is to say US-China, US-Japan and Sino-Japanese relationships. The exception, of course, is Southeast Asian security challenges growing out of internal crisis (e.g. Indonesia unraveling).

In any event, Asia is reaching a stage where probable events and policy choices made in pursuit of respective national strategies may soon begin to foreclose options in regard to the future geopolitical architecture of the region. There are three probable decision points just over the horizon, any one of which could transform the region: decisions made in the process of Korean reunification; possible conflict over the future of Taiwan; and in regard to the deployment of missile defense systems by the U.S. and its allies. Each of these developments holds the possibility of irreversibly reshaping the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. Already, all three issues - Korean reunification, Taiwan conflict, missile defense deployments - are being factored into every actor's security calculus. The potentially tragic prospect is that fateful decisions may be forced prematurely, before key factors fostering uncertainty - most importantly, the outcome of China's transformation - warrant such choices. Thus, the necessary geopolitical ambiguity characterizing this interim period could harden into new strategic configurations.

The Korea Factor

Most prominently, the impending reunification of Korea suggests it will play as much of a defining role in catalyzing Asian geopolitics in the 21st century as imperial rivalries did at the end of the last century. The resolution of the Korea question will likely force a shift from respective hedging strategies to new diplomatic patterns and political configurations that will shape the region into the mid-21st century.

One key variable will be the then nature of Sino-American relations and the health of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Under the best of circumstances, a stable, non-adversarial relationship with Washington, Beijing will not greet with enthusiasm the prospect of a unified, democratic, free market Korea allied with the United States with forward deployed American forces on its border. Potentially conflicting approaches to regional security will make Korea a seminal case in establishing the possibilities of mutual accommodation and defining their future roles in East Asia. The point here is that the present congruence of US and Chinese interests in Korea - a desire to avoid war, collapse, and nuclear proliferation -- is unlikely to endure after reunification, at which point they will begin to diverge.

Sino-American differences both on the nature of forward-deployed U.S. forces on the Peninsula and on the future of the US-Korean relations will be brought into sharp relief at the point of reunification, if not before. Certainly any post-reunification US-Korean relationship in which Washington maintains a military presence in Korea will require some clear understanding with Beijing. In lieu of some new understandings, a polarization and ensuing tension will likely result.

China can be expected to exert tremendous, if subtle pressure on the government of a unified Korea to forego any continuing US military presence. This in turn would leave Japan as the only country in Asia with forward-deployed US troops, and almost certainly at a minimum, spark a debate there, and may, attenuate the US-Japan security alliance. However, if Beijing is heavy-handed in its efforts regarding the US-Korea linkage, it could be counter-productive and reinforce a Korean desire for close security ties with the U.S. lest the 21st century begin to resemble the beginning of this century.

At the same time, a newly unified Korea will closely watch the strength of US-Japan security relations in gauging its approach to regional security. A strong U.S.-Japan alliance, one that constrains Japanese power projection would have a confidence-building effect on Seoul's strategic vision and force development. Conversely, a diminished or more problematic alliance, and movements by Japan toward autonomous capabilities could spur strategic competition in Northeast Asia. Certainly, any diminution of the U.S. forward deployed presence in Korea would likely trigger more heated debate in Japan about the U.S. force presence there, if not begin to reconfigure the U.S. forward deployed presence. That, in turn, would force Korea to rethink its security options.

The nuclear temptation has been under-appreciated by most analysts in assessing post-unification security options. But South Korean efforts to attain nuclear weapons in the 1970s, when there was a less ambiguous U.S. security umbrella and far less Japanese capability (e.g. no potential delivery system or source of fissile material) warrant such post-unification concern. Discussions with South Korean officials and writings of the scientific and military elite reveal a continued interest in acquiring fuel cycle capabilities --reprocessing -- with a clear intent of maintaining at least the technical capacity.[10] The status of any U.S. nuclear guarantee will be an important factor shaping the attitude of an a reunified Korea towards such weapons. The experience with NATO expansion, e.g. the absence of US troops in Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary, suggests the possibility of maintaining such a nuclear umbrella without forward deployed forces if there is some treaty relationship continues, whether the current treaty or a successor.

Unified Korea's Security Options

Four possible alternative future scenarios for the regional security posture of a unified Korea can be envisioned:

  • neutrality along Swiss lines;
  • strategic independence;
  • Sino-Korean entente;
  • continued alliance with the United States.

Neutrality for Korea does not comport well with history. At the time of unification, a relatively weak and vulnerable Korea would likely harbor too much distrust of its larger neighbors to place its security on good faith alone. This vulnerability makes it difficult to envision a unified Korean government entrusting its security to cooperative arrangements not resting on a foundation of military balance. Indeed President Kim Dae Jung makes a compelling realist argument for the continuation of a U.S. presence after unification, namely that a small Korea exists tenuously between powerful continental and maritime powers.[11]

Strategic independence, while more appealing than neutrality, is unlikely to be the option of choice. Yet inevitable changes in the US-Korean security relationship following reunification, could push Seoul in such a direction. It is worth noting that a Korean posture of strategic independence holds a realistic possibility of renewed efforts to obtain nuclear weapons capability. From a Korean perspective, this is not a wholly unreasonable quest. Perpetual fears that Japan is a virtual nuclear weapons state and the reality of being surrounded by China and Russia offer a window into Korean logic. Moreover, it is probable that Seoul would inherit intermediate - and possibly long-range -- missile capabilities, chemical and biological weapons capabilities, and possibly also an opaque or overt nuclear capability.

Perhaps the most unstable possible outcome would be a Sino-Korean alignment. In its most extreme form, it could define a heartland-rimland polarization either to counter or as insurance against the U.S.-Japan alliance. Given China's historic relations with Korea, or even the evolution of PRC-ROK ties since the 1995 unprecedented Jiang Zemin six-day visit to Seoul, Korean fears of a kind of neo-tributary status suggest that this would not be Seoul's preferred option.[12] The rapid expansion of Sino-Korean relations in the early 1990s, in large part related to Seoul's efforts to build leverage against Pyongyang and Beijing's strategic decision forge ties to Seoul while maintaining its ties to Pyongyang to enhance its leverage on the Peninsula. Beijing's decision to embrace Seoul initially produced a Sino-Korean relationship that was also anti-Japanese in overtone in during Jiang's 1995 visit. Should the U.S.-Japan alliance fray and Japan move to strengthen its independent military posture, a Korean alignment with China cannot be ruled out.

From a U.S. perspective, the best case that is in the realm of the possible will be some variation or combination options no.2 and no.3. There is an overlap of U.S. and Korean interests in Seoul's desire to balance the major powers. One can envision access, propositioned equipment, joint training and exercising in the context of a revised security treaty up to and perhaps including a small logistics unit sustained in Korea. Moreover, recent trends have seen South Korea tilting more towards the U.S. and Japan, in large measure as a consequence of the persistent North Korean threat

There is a large spectrum of options between the current status quo and no security relationship with Korea. Four possible models can be envisioned: an alliance absent ground troops and smaller air and naval presence; a reconfigured alliance with emphasis on access, logistic support, propositioned equipment and joint training and exercising; a Singapore model, small logistical presence, joint training and access; a Philippine model: maintain a security treaty with no presence or regular access, but joint training. Indeed, the future U.S. security relationship with Korea must be viewed in the context of a larger U.S. strategy towards East Asia - sustaining U.S. access to and some credible presence in the region. The key external independent variable in the equation once again will be the outcome of China's unprecedented transformation and its posture towards the region.

The Taiwan Conundrum

The Taiwan problem, may be the ultimate symbol of clashing US-China interests and values. A Cold War remnant, Taiwan captures the divergence between China's new security concept and the reality of U.S. dominance in the Pacific. Perhaps most starkly, the Taiwan issue illuminates a perception gap, with the U.S. viewing it as a case of defending a democracy and free market partner, while China sees only claims of national sovereignty denied by 150 of imperialist humiliation. For the U.S., a cross-strait military conflict is almost certainly a lose-lose proposition. If the U.S. did not come to Taipei's aid in the event of an invasion, its would raise profound doubts in the minds of allies as to the credibility of the U.S. security umbrella. Yet a U.S. military response would force choices polarizing East Asia, put its alliances at risk by forcing the region to make choices, and harden an enduring enmity, and probable new Cold War with China. This was painfully evident in the responses of East Asians to the March 1996 Taiwan crisis.

The current situation also illustrates what might be called "One Country, Two Policies," in regard to U.S. policy toward the Taiwan issue. Contrast Clinton's "Three Nos" statement during his June 1998 China visit, with Congressional legislation, most recently the Taiwan Enhancement Act. These pull in precisely opposite directions, with the Clinton position reinforcing the post -1971- "One China" policy framework of the three communiqués, and Congress in its inimitable way, essentially saying defend Taiwan democracy. Both send the wrong signals to both sides and compromise U.S. strategic ambiguity that has been important to the preservation of cross-strait stability. Clinton's position reverses the posture of wanting China to think the U.S. would intervene in a cross-strait unprovoked of force, while Congress's behavior could be read in Taipei as a green light to pursue moves toward formal independence. This is one aspect of the post-Cold War breakdown of the bipartisan consensus on China policy. It is also read by some in the region as an illustration Washington seeking to export its values, and the U.S. redefining the role of sovereignty in international relations.

Missile Defense

The Taiwan question overlaps with the third potential decision point that could create new polarization between the U.S. and China, if not others in East Asia. China has made the U.S. provision of Aegis cruisers and PAC-3 theater missile defenses a redline in Sino-American relations. Rhetoric about PAC-3, still under development could have the unintended consequence of leading China to consider military action before the balance of military forces becomes less favorable. But in any case, virulent Chinese opposition, as is the case with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, reflects a near-term political fears: that obtaining TMD might lead to a U.S.-Taiwan quasi-alliance that could embolden Taipei to formally declare independence.

More broadly strategically capable systems such as THAAD, and Navy Theater Wide are also having a impact on Chinese military planners and the outcome of its nuclear modernization program. Chinese nuclear managers are beginning to do worse-case planning against the possibility that their modest nuclear deterrent might be neutralized by U.S. ballistic missile defenses. This risk is that this may lead Beijing to pursue a more robust and MIRVed nuclear force than otherwise might be the case. So far, the absolute numbers have not risen substantially. It is not clear whether the newly deployed DF-31 or DF-41 when it becomes operational in the 2010 timeframe be more or less replacements for existing forces or part of a significant nuclear build-up. If so, the unintended consequences of looming missile defense decisions could be less strategic stability. It could also foreclose possibilities for arms control between the U.S. Russia and China. Moreover, it appears that part of China's response is increased cooperation with Russia. A MIRVed China with penetration aids and counter-measures. Regionally, US-Japanese missile defense deployments - depending on what architecture is chosen, could reinforce a polarization in Northeast Asia.


For the near-term, the trends described above will not qualitatively alter the basic structure of relations in East Asia. Over time, however, even if precipitous events do not force change, there will be a gradual erosion of U.S. influence in the face of waxing nationalism and enchanced economic and strategic capabilities. At a minimum this requires more coherent U.S. policy approaches and more "enlightened self-interest" adjustment to new realities. Apart from possible decisions on missile defense systems over the coming year or two, the other two seminal developments may not occur for some time, and in the case of Taiwan, the possibility of a peaceful resolution can not be ruled out. On missile defense systems, the nature of the decisions taken and the architecture decided upon will determine the Chinese response.

A key question is whether the U.S. and China can sustain an ambiguous relationship where both are hedging against uncertainty until China's transition to a post-centrally planned economy produces a more clear economic and political outcome. A China where the iron rice bowl is broken and some form of a constitutional rule-of-law system is established changes alters the possibilities for US-China relations, and hence, the geopolitical equation. A China that is a corporatist, authoritarian system - also a possible scenario-would have very different implications.

More broadly, the net result of the interplay of the executive branch and the Congress - that is to say, the multitude of cross-cutting single issue interests -- is U.S. policy appearing to many imperious and confused. It is tempting to argue that all this is matter little in a world of overwhelming American power and influence. Yet actions have consequences. The U.S. global advantage is impermanent. Over the next quarter century, the role of other powers, the Europeans, China, perhaps even Russia will increase. The American challenge is to husband its advantage wisely. That means fostering a global structure of relations that advances U.S. long-term U.S. interests in which other major players feel they have more of a stake in cooperating with than in obstructing. Recent actions of U.S. allies and others indicated that message we seem to be sending is less one of norms and rules than of arbitrary power. The irony is that global trends are largely beneficial to U.S. interests and values - democratization is spreading in Asia, deregulation and privatization continue apace.


  1. ^ Own calculations based on IEA forecast, EIA, and Fereidun Fesharaki of East-West Center (1998)
  2. ^ US DOE, Energy Imnformation Agency, "International Energy Outlook, 1999, p. 141.
  3. ^ See "China's National Defense, " State Council, Beijing
  4. ^ See Sherman Garnett's study of Sino-Russian relations, "Limited Partnership," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Wash, DC 1998, for a full discussion of the bilateral relationship.
  5. ^ See BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, "China and Malaysia sign Joint Statement for Future Cooperation, June 2, 1999.
  6. ^ See Ronald Montaperto, "Reality check: Assessing the Chinese Military Threat," Defense Working Group paper #4, PPI, April 1998, for a sober view. Also the U.S. Dept of Defense Report to Congress, "China: Future Military Capabilities and Strategy." Washington, DC 1998.
  7. ^ See James E. Auer, "Japan's Military Capability in 2015," SAIS Poicy Forum, December 1998 for a full discussion of Japan's military capacity and approach to security.
  8. ^ See Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration; Tokyo, 8 October 1998, Japan Foreign Ministry.
  9. ^ See Moscow Declaration, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; November 1998.
  10. ^ See Foreign Broadcast Information Service(FBIS) Special Memorandum, "South Korea's Emerging Nuclear Potential," February 22, 1996 for a sampling of views among the Korean intelligentsia.
  11. ^ Remarks to Council on Foreign Relations Task Force, Seoul, May 1998
  12. ^ See Robert A. Manning "Will The Koreas Play the China Card?", The International Economy, March/April 1997, for a discussion of these potential alignments.