East Asia faces an enormous number of challenges. The countries of the region clash over territory, argue over history, compete for diminishing natural resources, and dispute the balance of power along the Pacific Rim.
In response to all these challenges, the United States has offered a one-size-fits-all approach: free trade and more arms. Ratification of the free trade agreement the United States is pushing in the region, known as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), remains a long shot. In the meantime, Washington has fallen back on arms peddling and burden sharing.
The Pacific Pivot of the Obama administration is only the latest version of a militarized U.S. response to regional conflicts. For many years, Washington has been pushing its allies in the region to buy high-priced U.S. weapons systems and spend a larger percentage of their GDP on defense. Tragically, the final denouement of Washington’s military evangelism could be catastrophic conflicts that end American influence in the region.
East Asia’s thriving economy is the envy of the world. But the recent growth in military spending makes analogies to the Europe of 100 years ago no longer seem so far-fetched. The region is home to top military spenders: China is number two in the world, Japan weighs in at number eight, and South Korea has risen to number ten. Russia, the number three in military expenditures, is a significant player in the region by dint of its far east and its expanding relationships with China and North Korea. And number thirteen, Australia, is increasing its presence in the region.
The United States, which spends more on the military than the next eight top spenders combined, is thoroughly enmeshed in the region. Although the Pacific Pivot involves only a modest increase in the U.S. military footprint – primarily in the form of naval power – it has brought with it a more confrontational approach toward China and a push to significantly increase the military spending of U.S. allies.
Hawks inside the Beltway want the United States to be even more confrontational. For example, CSIS’s Michael Green and Victor Cha have argued that the United States should double the number of nuclear attack submarines that are based at Guam, increase amphibious forces in Hawaii, station littoral combat ships in South Korea, permanently base a bomber squadron on Guam, and increase manned and unmanned surveillance throughout the region. The increase in provocative surveillance flights along China’s borders has already done much to raise tensions.
The region desperately needs a plan for responding to serious security threats such as climate change and the widening disparities in wealth. Instead, U.S. engagement is driven by campaigns to convince South Korea to purchase an expensive missile defense program called THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) when Seoul’s official position is that it does not need the program. Similarly, China’s entirely legitimate concerns about the stationing of such equipment at close proximity have been dismissed without even a minimum effort at dialog.
Even more troubling is the emerging nuclear breakout in East Asia. China, which traditionally maintained a modest arsenal, is engaged in a serious modernization effort aimed at enhancing survivability, increasing striking power, and countering missile-defense programs. North Korea is expanding the capacity of its nuclear weapons, though the size and reach remains unknown, and that move is increasing pressure on its immediate neighbors to go nuclear. We now hear voices in Seoul and Tokyo urging a repeal of the prohibitions against nuclear weapons in order to counter the programs of their neighbors – with some analysts in the United States urging them to do so. And the Obama administration, despite its advocacy of nuclear abolition and its negotiations of new ceilings with Russia (whose utility have been drawn into question by recent events), has green-lighted a multi-billion dollar modernization of its own arsenal.
Maybe Washington policymakers believe that a ring of allies will pin down a rising China. But future conflicts are unlikely to follow this game plan. For example, South Korea and Japan have their own disputes over territory and history. Increases in Japanese military spending, even if ostensibly aimed at North Korea, will inevitably be perceived by both South Korea and China as a direct threat. Similarly, beefing up the Vietnamese military will likewise trigger an arms race in Southeast Asia unrelated to China.
The European Example
In the 1970s, arms control negotiations were essential to transforming Europe from the scene of multiple tragic arms races and devastating wars into a unified, peaceful region. Military leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union realized the dangers of the arms race and entered into serious negotiations that produced concrete nuclear arms control and conventional arms control agreements during the détente period.
During the early 1970s, the two sides of the Cold War divide made a commitment to addressing their various disagreements in three ways: through bilateral nuclear agreements between Moscow and Washington, through political and economic discussions in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and through the reduction of military forces in Europe in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) negotiations. The MBFR, after some fits and starts, eventually fed into the talks that in 1989 resulted in concrete reductions in NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. After the Cold War ended, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty provided a platform for negotiating further reductions of forces between NATO and Russia, although neither side fully embraced the plans.
The arms build-up in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s was no less dangerous than the situation in East Asia today. In spite of the relative success of détente, the Cold War mentality flared up again after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting demonization of Moscow by the Reagan administration. Nonetheless, the nuclear and conventional arms control negotiations of the 1970s held up through all the political tests, serving as essential building blocks for a new security architecture that assured a stable and peaceful Europe.
Decades of arms control negotiations created an environment in which politicians, policymakers, and military experts dedicated their time to thinking about how to reduce tensions, rather than create tensions so as to expand military budgets. They developed sophisticated systems for confidence-building that in turn institutionalized the agreements beyond mere reductions in the level of armaments. The result was a proliferation of Track 2 and Track 3 discussions that created a wider circle of stakeholders committed to tension reduction, which ensured that arms control and disarmament agreements continued regardless of changes in political leadership.
Asia doesn’t have any comparable history of arms control and disarmament. Japan participated in the Washington Naval Conference, the first arms control meeting in history and the source of the 1922 agreement limiting battleship construction. But it was also Japan that effectively ended the agreement when it pulled out in 1936.
In the post-war era, the only arms control to speak of has been Japan’s adoption of a peace constitution that renounces the sovereign right of military action and calls for an international regime of peace and justice. Despite the promise of that peace constitution, other nations did not adopt such policies–most notably the United States, which imposed the constitution on Japan in the first place. The United States also removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as part of the scaling down of the military after the Cold War, but that symbolic act was not part of an overarching policy concerning armaments.
The U.S. strategy for East Asia, currently termed “rebalancing,” demands a complete reformulation.
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First and foremost, the basis of foreign policy should be mutual security, not the sales of pricy weapons systems. Over the next five years the United States and its alliance partners–Japan, South Korea, and Australia–together with the major military powers of the region, China and Russia, and the ASEAN member states, should meet to draft a comprehensive plan for the limitation of nuclear and conventional weapons.
That commitment to an arms limitation agreement must go hand and hand with a security policy that recognizes climate change as the primary security threat for the region and demands systemic reforms of all governments.
There is already significant support for such an approach, as evidenced by the declaration of Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III (the leader of the U.S. Pacific Command) that climate change is the most significant security challenge. As Andrew DeWit has noted, the U.S. Pacific Command has committed itself to a concrete engagement with climate issues that opens up new vistas for future collaboration across Asia. Climate change must serve as the transformative issue in security that drives forward an arms control grand deal as part of a fundamental redefinition of the role of the military in society.
Engagement with China is a necessary condition for success. China does not categorically view the United States as an unwelcome presence in the region. Although there are hardliners in Beijing, as there are in Washington, China has consistently expressed a willingness to work with the United States on security issues, including military-to-military cooperation. China has participated in military exercises, such as RIMPAC 2014, organized by the United States.
However, the confrontational displays of military hardware in China’s coastal waters have raised concerns in Beijing that the United States is not so much a regional arbiter as a hegemon trying to subdue a potential threat. The future of the world depends as much on the United States moving away from a Cold War paradigm for diplomacy and security as it does on China accepting the norms of the international community. The decision by the United States to engage with China in a long-term arms control agreement could transform the relationship of the two countries.
The Way Forward
The United States is the world’s biggest spender on military hardware as well as the world’s biggest salesman. Therefore, the first step toward a comprehensive East Asian arms control agreement should begin in Washington. Rather than ratcheting up of the arms race in response to disputes, Washington should show leadership by embracing a commitment to arms reduction and confidence-building measures.
Any arms control agreement should be multilateral, as opposed to bilateral. It is critical to recognize that the current arms buildup in the region involves every single country, and that the underlying causes of tension are complex and do not following alliance lines. The extreme focus on North Korea’s nuclear program has blinded us to larger regional security challenges.
Such an agreement will require some form of institution, even if it is only a regular conference, as the CSCE initially was. Track One and Track Two institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, could be the locus for initial conversations. A mature comprehensive arms control framework will eventually require a new inter-governmental initiative.
The Six Party Talks could serve as an initial platform to enter into serious discussions about arms control. Rather than repeat the litany of demands for North Korea to unconditionally end its nuclear program, the members–the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and North Korea–could start negotiations about how to eliminate nuclear weapons and vastly reduce conventional weapons in the region. Such negotiations should not be limited to or dependent on Pyongyang’s actions but should rather serve as the basis of a larger security architecture that will be implemented regardless of North Korea’s actions. However, the negotiations should, in and of themselves, provide incentives for North Korea to participate as part of a larger agreement to reduce Chinese, Japanese, and Korean arms, as well as scale down the U.S. military presence.
One obvious incentive for North Korea to participate would be for the United States to offer to negotiate a peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Such a peace treaty, for which Pyongyang has been lobbying, could include a provision on creating a regional mechanism to ensure compliance. This mechanism could then become the core of a new regional security structure.
An initial agreement among those players would gain momentum from a declaration of U.S. support for the Limited Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia proposed by John Endicott in 1995. This proposal has been crafted with the input of military experts from all the members of the Six Party Talks (except North Korea) and can serve as a first step toward to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons in the region. The proposed NWFZ (Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone) is effective in that it builds on the precedents of eight established NWFZs, such as the Antarctic Treaty (1959) and the Southeast Asia NWFZ (1995).
The negotiations on nuclear weapons should be paralleled by series of talks concerning the reduction of armaments in the region based on the precedents of the MBFR talks. Those discussions could develop into an on-going mechanism that generates arms reduction proposals and a roadmap for implementation following a predictable sequence. Specific agreements could be negotiated for naval vessels, tanks and artillery, aircraft and bombers, and missiles and other delivery systems. The agreements should also include active monitoring arrangements to ensure compliance and provide for strict rules concerning military drills and surveillance. A key element of these talks would be the scaling back of major military exercises in the region, with an eye toward an eventual moratorium, and a cessation of provocative surveillance programs in the region.
Moreover, because the rapid rate of technological change is making conventional arms increasingly unconventional, agreements on conventional weapons must evolve to keep up. Emerging technologies such as drones, robots, 3D printing, and cyber warfare should also be addressed directly by the protocols of these arms treaties. The disruptive nature of technological change itself should be explicitly addressed within any arms control treaty to assure its continued relevance.
Theater missile defense should be addressed as a part of a comprehensive arms treaty. Despite the technological questions surrounding the effectiveness of such a missile defense system, the proposal by the United States to extend a system to Korea and Japan has already resulted in reciprocal advances in China’s ballistic missile program that are inherently destabilizing. Moreover, China doesn’t accept the American position that missile defense is a defensive mechanism. As a result, although Americans might argue that missile defense would be the last element to be removed in an arms control agreement, China would argue that it should be the first to go. This issue can only be addressed by serious negotiations.
Finally, it is critical that talks on climate change mitigation and adaptation parallel the talks on nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. Reducing conventional and nuclear armaments will necessitate a transformation of the military’s focus and function. The huge bureaucracies that employ millions of people in the respective militaries must be given a stake in the battle against climate change.
Over the last year, the world has witnessed an uptick in conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza that is deeply troubling. In each of these cases, the situation has escalated because of the choice of a military response by all sides. The crises in East Asia, meanwhile, have become muted over the last couple months. This is an ideal moment for Asia to offer a different approach to settling the myriad conflicts that have bedeviled the region for years. If Asia bids farewell to arms as a means of solving conflicts, it can set a powerful example for the rest of the world.