Time to rethink East Asia's strategic interests

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 is already.

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



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