Cold War Mentality Taints Security Issues in Asia

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 1, 1996.
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"We have managed the aftermath of the Cold War,"President Clinton declared grandiloquently in the first presidentialdebate. That Clinton gets away with his masquerade as a foreignpolicy titan represents a sad commentary on the Republicans'feckless indolence in this field. How have they failed to holdthe administration to account for so many failings? Of which noneis greater than policy toward Asia.

The charge sheet against the administration contains somewell-known tactical miscalculations with regard to China overhuman rights and Japan over trade. Much more serious, however, is whatthe administration has not done: its strategic failure to attendto Asia's security needs as the next century unfolds.

Nearly seven years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. andits Asian partners still depend on the 1950s-era "hub andspoke" system of defense alliances. As a result, Asia lacks up-to-datesecurity structures, a highly dangerous situation at a time ofrising Asian outlays for new high-performance aircraft and bulkpurchases of former Warsaw Pact naval ships.

The administration's Asia specialists have an explanation forthe absence of change. They argue that the end of the Cold Warmatters less in Asia than in Europe. In Asia, the theory goes,fear of Soviet domination was never the single, overridingprinciple of foreign policy. Consequently, the Soviet demise doesnot bring with it any need to review the traditional arrangements.

For those who value complacency, this theory is manna fromheaven. No need to think. No need to act. Just sit back, contentwith business as usual. Or to put it in operational terms, it is atheory that allows the secretary of state to devote more time toSyria than to China, Korea, Japan and India combined.

Complacency, however, is rarely a valid option ininternational relations. In contemporary Asia, it is a recipe fordisaster.

Start with China, a country that received not a single mentionin either presidential debate. The real concern here is not thatChina is such a looming presence. Nor that on nearly every currentissue--trade, human rights, nuclear proliferation, Taiwan--theU.S. and China approach one another from diametrically opposedstandpoints. More important is that China is embroiled indisputes with nearly all its neighbors. Some are relatively pettylike the recent flare-up with Japan over the Senkaku islands offTaiwan. Others are much more serious, such as China's hard-to-readintentions toward Hong Kong and North Korea, or potentiallycatastrophic, such as the determination to repossess Taiwan.Still others, China's exploding energy consumption, for example,lurk just below the horizon.

Alongside this free-form arrangement of China-relateddisputes, a second set of disagreements plagues intra-Asianrelations. As demonstrated by the bizarre September submarineincursion, North Korea has no intention of docilely accepting itsfate. Japan faces the renewal of simmering territorial disputeswith Korea and Russia. Korea and Japan even have different namesfor the stretch of ocean that divides them.

In Southeast Asia, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has broughtIndonesia's East Timor problem back into world attention at atime of rising political discontent and subsequent governmentcrackdown. Farther west, India and Pakistan teeter from time totime on the brink of nuclear war over Kashmir.

The list of problems could go on, but the search for solutionsis going nowhere. The missing ingredient is an Asian securitystructure in which they can be mediated. China and Japan, for example,could benefit from a forum for discussion of the Senkaku problem.To fill this gap, leadership is required, something that none ofthe bigger Asian countries can provide. China faces generationaltransition. The new Japanese government is wary of new ideas.Korea, despite its economic success, is reluctant to adopt a forwardposture.

Why should the U.S. concern itself? If intra-Asian rivalriesget out of hand, the U.S. risks getting dragged into messyshooting wars on matters of peripheral importance to U.S.interests.

A multilateral security system such as exists in Europe and,in fledgling form, in Southeast Asia promises the best wayforward to defusing tensions. The sooner an American initiativeon these lines can be presented, the better. An excellentopportunity comes at this month's Manila summit meeting of the Asia-PacificEconomic Cooperation forum. The administration has done well insupport of APEC; now is the time to add a political dimension. Ifthis can be achieved, the administration's self-congratulationwill sound less hollow.

Jonathan Clarke is a Research Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.