by Walden Bello, in the Nation Newspaper, 21 March, 1998, Bangkok, Thailand

Even with the end of the Cold War, there are still many factors that chip away at stability in the region, writes Walden Bello.

From March 27 to 30, a conference on ”Alternative Security Systems for the Asia-Pacific”, drawing over 40 experts and numerous participants from all over the region, will be held at the YMCA Collins International House in Bangkok.

Some may ask, why a conference on peace and security in the Asia-Pacific? Have not the conditions for long-term peace in the region been created by the end of the Cold War and the spread of economic prosperity?

This is, of course, what government representatives would have us believe. For instance, at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas of Indonesia confidently told the world’s business elites that in the Asia-Pacific, ”The pursuit of economic development should be the main motivation to keep the guns mute.” Tommy Koh, Singaporean diplomat and stalwart of the ruling People’s Action Party, is equally sanguine, describing the Asia-Pacific as ”a region of booming economies at peace with itself.”

The belief underlying these statements is that prosperity built on growing trade and investment ties among countries in the region is making wars among them less and less likely as a way of resolving disputes.

The problem with these statements is that they are, at best, half truths. True, the guns are not firing ­ yet ­ but the very process of rapid economic growth, in the absence of a regional, multilateral system to preserve the peace, is in fact creating the conditions where the triggers can be pulled.

Conflicts over natural resources have been exacerbated in the last few years, with the competing claims over the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands by six fast-growing economies being the most alarming case. But the Spratly conflict is merely one of close to 20 ongoing territorial and resource disputes in East Asia, many of them conflicts which have flared up only in the last few years of rapid Asian economic growth.

The Arms Race

The offspring of the marriage of resource hunger and rising purchasing power owing to economic growth has been an arms race that is now practically out of control. East Asia is now the world’s fastest growing arms market, with the states of northeast Asia leading the pack with defence expenditures growing by around 10 per cent or more a year.

In both Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, ambitious capital acquisition programmes are underway to create modern militaries, with integrated armour and artillery units; air and naval fleets with the ability to project power beyond their shores; and high-tech intelligence, communications, and command and control capabilities.

Military procurers from East Asia have assiduously combed the arsenals of both the West and the fallen East in the search for weapons, one of the most successful among them being Indonesia, which was able to acquire ­ reportedly at bargain basement prices ­ a third of the former East German Navy.

But it is not only the demand side of the equation that has been active. Seeing a surging market, the arms dealers ­ in particular, the Americans, who are number one when it comes to arms sales to Asia ­ have devoted much effort to creating demand for sophisticated weaponry.

In some cases, the suppliers have sometimes been the main element provoking crisis or touching off feverish arms competition. For instance, it was the sale of 150 state-of-the-art F-16 fighters to Taiwan that torpedoed an emerging modus vivendi between Taiwan and China in the late 1980s. And it was likewise the US’ sale of F-16s to Singapore a few years ago that triggered the jet fighter arms race in Southeast Asia.

The arms race is part of what is emerging as the ”great game” in East Asia: the balance of power. If there is one thing that distinguishes the security situation of East Asia from contemporary Europe, it is the absence in the former of a multilateral system for ensuring collective security or resolving political and military disputes, like Nato or the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe).

What there is instead is an increasingly complicated game wherein the Asean bloc seeks to manipulate the US military presence to check China and Japan; Beijing relies on Washington to keep the Japanese under control; Tokyo continues to rely on Washington to counter China; and Washington cultivates Japan, South Korea and Asean to contain what many in Washington perceive as the strategic threat to America’s global hegemony represented by China.

With its commitment to traditional balance of power policies, China is described in a recent Foreign Affairs article as ”the high church of realpolitik in the post-Cold War world”. Maybe.

For the Asia-Pacific is full of devotees of realpolitik. Asean, for one, self-consciously practises balance of power. As one Indonesian specialist puts it, ”sustainable peace and security in the region” depends on a ”multi-polar balance of power” wherein ”a relatively big and influential country” actively undertakes ”diplomatic and military cooperation with smaller countries” along the lines of ”Europe a century ago or two where Britain played the role of a balancer against France and, subsequently, Germany.”

In this imagery, the role of the Kaiser’s Germany in the late 19th century is filled in today’s Asia Pacific by China and the role of Britain is played by the United States.

This image is flawed for two fundamental reasons. But by no stretch of the imagination can today’s China be compared to the aggressively expansionist late 19th century Germany that was intent on redrawing the borders of Europe by force. The so-called Chinese arms buildup is an effort to catch up with high-tech modernisation of the US’ Asian allies in the 1980s by a government whose defence spending in 1989 was actually 23 per cent less than its expenditures in 1979.

The second reason the image is flawed is that the US is not an external power that exists ”in splendid isolation”, one that occasionally intervenes to restore equilibrium. The US may be an offshore power but it is embedded in the region, employing Japan as an ”unsinkable aircraft carrier” for force projection, bisecting the Korean peninsula with its 37,000 troops, and surveying the Asian littoral from Yokosuka in Japan to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean with the powerful mobile base that is the Seventh Fleet.

The US: A Stabilising Force?

Analyses emanating from the Washington Beltway and reproduced by uncritical Asean ”defence intellectuals” often portray this military presence as a ”stabilising influence”.

But in fact, this presence has, in reality, been a major force for destabilisation. As the noted political scientist Chalmers Johnson has pointed out, the US’ sale of F-16s to Taipei and its sending of two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea during the Taiwan Strait Crisis last year constituted destabilising interventions in the unfinished Chinese Civil War. And it is the US presence that is mainly responsible for the unnatural division of Korea over the last 50 years.

Indeed, a less biased and more thoughtful analysis of the US presence would probably lead one to agree with British security specialist Barry Buzan’s contention that ”the US presence in Northeast Asia (has) contributed to the failure of the local states either to build regional institutions or to come to terms with each other in their bilateral relations.”

The. over-riding and consistent US strategic aim in Asia has been to prevent the emergence of a regional actor that could rival its hegemonic role. What is sometimes referred to as American’s ”Grand Strategy” is elaborated by Samuel P Huntington in his recent book, ”The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order”:

”[F]or almost two hunderd years, the United States has atempted to prevent the emergence of an overwhelmingly dominant power in Europe. For almost a hundred years, beginning with its ‘Open Door’ policy toward China, it has attempted to do the same in East Asia. To achieve their goals it has fought two world wars and a cold war … This American interest remains and was reaffirmed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. The emergence of China as the dominant regional power in East Asia challenges that central American interest.”

James Morely, a veteran Pentagon Asia hand, expressed the same views about an unchanging US objective when he asserted last year during a conference in Tokyo that ”the strategic picture has not changed from that of the Cold War. Then, we had an alliance of the status quo against a power that threatened the status quo. Today, there are still forces that threaten the same status quo, except that now North Korea and China have stepped into the role that was formerly filled by the Soviet Union.”

There are, of course, divisions of opinion within the Washington foreign policy establishment. But what divides the liberal internationalist wing represented by President Bill Clinton from the right wing is not the goal of ensuring US strategic hegemony in Asia but the means to achieve it.

The liberal internationalists prefer a sophisticated policy that combines military might, diplomatic manoeuvring, and coalition politics. The right wing prefers a policy that is dependent mainly on the threat to aggressively employ the military might of the US, with little attention to diplomatic niceties a la Jesse Helms.

The liberal internationalists also pay more attention to the ideological justification for realpolitik, knowing that they have to sell a policy of permanent military engagement in Asia to a weary US populace, to squeeze their democratic assent for what the defining document of the Cold War, National Security Council Memorandum 68, once called the ”long twilight struggle” against the enemy. The rationales may have shifted, from ”containing Communism” during the Cold War to ”enlarging democracy and isolating rogue regimes” under Clinton, but the strategic end of preventing the rise of powers perceived as hegemonic challengers has been the constant in US policy toward Asia.

Opposing Multilateralism

In order to maintain the maximum freedom of manoeuvre for its military movements and diplomacy in the pursuit of this end, the United States has consistently opposed the creation of an effective multilateral system of regional security that would tame the anarchic balance of power relations and serve as the scaffolding for the post-Cold War peace, even when these initiatives have come from its allies like Australia, Canada, Japan and Asean.

In sum, what we have in the Asia-Pacific at the end of the 20th century is a situation not unlike that which obtained in Europe at the end of the 19th: rapid economic development accompanied by an arms race; an intricate balance of power system that gets more complicated and unstable over time; and an offshore power practising a multi-pronged strategy aimed at isolating what it sees as an ”anti-status quo challenger”.

In Europe, that system became so intricate that it ran out of everyone’s control, prompting even the inveterate balance-of-power proponent Henry Kissinger to admit that it, in effect, became ”a doomsday machine”. In Asia, we still have time to heed the words of a prominent liberal philosopher who, looking at the ruins of Europe after the First World War, declared: ”Balance of power is a system of managed anarchy in which anarchy overcomes the management in the end.”

Walden Bello, a contributing editor to The Nation, is the co-director of the Focus on the Global South, a programme of Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute, and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines.