Time to rethink East Asia's strategic
SCMP March 17
The consequences of the war in Iraq for the Middle East, and perhaps
central Asia, are unfathomable. Those for East Asia are easier to see.
The importance lies not in the course of the war itself, nor even in
its economic impact. The fact that the war has started at all is the
story for Asia as well as for Europe. Just as the United States has
reassessed its strategic position and felt able to ignore the views
of most of its major allies, so those allies must now start to revise
their own strategies for protecting their national interests.
It is possible, of course, that the war or its aftermath will go so
badly for the Bush administration that this proves a one-off affair
and that the doctrines of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Richard
Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are quietly buried. Some in Washington who
have no objection to the war in principle recognise that its lead-in
has been an unmitigated diplomatic disaster. Even the warmongering editorialists
at the oracle of right-wing Anglo-American orthodoxy, the Economist,
now acknowledge that fact. It is not hard to see how, even under the
best of circumstances for the US, it is going to need the support of
Europeans and Turks - and even Iranians - if postwar political reconstruction
is to have a chance of success.
Nonetheless, Asian states must deal with the existing state of affairs.
That means the US assumption that allies are useful but not necessary.
It can, if it wishes, impose its will through military means in almost
any corner of the world. This war will likely demonstrate, much more
than the Gulf war, how far ahead the US is in the technology of war,
as well as in the quantity of firepower it can generate.
Combined with a willingness to go it alone, to ignore allies and the
United Nations, this is disturbing enough for other nations. Most worrying
of all, this military might is placed in the context of the strategic
doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. As Iraq is showing, that does not just
mean striking first against a real threat. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
has been scant threat to anyone but Iraqis since 1991. It means regime
change in the guise of pre-emption, extending to middle-sized countries
the sort of direct hegemonism previously reserved for Western hemisphere
mini-states such as Panama and Grenada. It is a curious throwback to
1898 when the US "liberated" the Philippines and then proceeded
to occupy it.
The governments of Japan and South Korea have managed to ignore public
opinion and declare their support for the US. However, they have hedged
their support with references to their own national interest, clearly
implying that their backing was given reluctantly, not because they
believed war was justified but because they had other interests with
the US that they did not wish damaged.
That is particularly understandable in the case of South Korea. Clearly,
the North Korea situation will have to receive the attention it deserves
once US President George W. Bush has had enough of showing off his military
toys in Iraq. South Korea badly needs to persuade the US to listen to
its views and those of Japan and China. Even the US, in its present
mood, may ultimately find that there is no alternative to direct talks
other than a pre-emptive strike, which carries dangers infinitely greater
than attacking Iraq. Nonetheless, a quick success in Iraq could make
US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld an even looser cannon than he
He has made South Koreans anxious by suggesting that the US might pull
its troops back from the border, where their presence is the tripwire
that has long been the key deterrent for the North. Even given the North's
destitution and the South's good relations with China, the US tripwire
will remain important, at least while the North has a nuclear capability
and heavy artillery massed along the demilitarised zone.
Japan's support for the US follows much the same logic. However, there
is less obvious need for it in Japan's case. Indeed, Japan's support
tends to show how its foreign policies are as frozen in the past as
its economic ones. The shift in US doctrine from deterrence to pre-emption
is deeply worrying for Japan and South Korea. So, too, are the technological
changes that are both increasing the US ability to bring its firepower
to bear and reducing the necessity for the large permanent bases such
as it has in Germany, South Korea and Japan.
Japan's defence thinking has been evolving slowly over recent years,
largely as a result of the growth of Chinese power. Japan has given
particular attention to its navy and the protection of sea lanes. This
will remain a priority. Concern about a nuclear-armed China will impel
Japan to keep close to the US. However, the general unpopularity of
the US - the sense that it will from now on pursue its own self-interest
without much regard for its allies - will make Japan and other Asian
friends more determined to keep their distance. That has implications
for Japan's development of strategic arms, and perhaps for the building
of new understandings with Russia, India, and other nations with whom
relations have been distant.
Another long-term consequence in Asia could be increased resistance
to economic penetration by US multinationals. The globalisation of the
past decade, which they have spearheaded, has been sustained by notions
of shared rules and values, and the placing of economic growth above
nationalism. Now that the US has thrown away the international rulebook,
those countries may be less willing to listen to lectures about the
rule of law, democracy and free markets.
Even in the short term, much damage has probably been done - for example,
to prospects for progress in the Doha round of trade talks now approaching
a critical stage. That just might become a basis for patching up transatlantic
feuds, but don't bank on it.
Do not bank, either, on a postwar revival of the US dollar or the US
economy. The US has the technology for an empire. But it lacks the money.
So beware another potential danger of post-war unilateralism - draconian
restrictions to balance its trade. Impossible? Remember one result of
the cost of the Vietnam war: abandonment of the gold standard for the
US currency, months of financial chaos and a massive devaluation of
the dollar. ends