Monday, August 28, 2006

Could US Frustrations Trigger An Arms Escalation in East Asia?

(The Japanese translation comes at the end,

instead of following each chapter.)

The Bush administration has been showing a deft, almost Machiavellian touch recently. First, they called France’s bluff by accepting Italy’s offer to send troops to Lebanon and lead the UN Peacekeeping Forces there. If the objective was to make President Chirac look weak, waffling and bombastic at the same time, the Bush administration certainly did a masterful job.

Secretary Rumsfeld followed this diplomatic coup when he neatly skewered the South Koreans by suggesting that they take over their own wartime command by 2009, instead of the 2012 that they had been demanding. If the US proposal is taken up, the transfer will surely loom large in the 2008 Korean presidential election. To add injury to insult, there will be little time for a new administration to turn back the clock since transfer procedures will have long been progress. Thus, President Roh may see the error of its ways and come back to the US, hat in hand.

Don’t bet on it. President Roh will not want to lose face by looking weak and unprepared in the face of US intransigence.

But France did wind up deciding to send substantial troops after all. It also made a belated offer to lead the mission, which will likely be accepted, given France’s traditional role in Lebanon and extensive contacts with the contestant communities and nations in the dispute. But the unseemly squabbling before France settled on its ultimate offer, as well as Chirac’s parting shots dumping a poorly argued doubt on the need for 15,000 troops, cast an unwanted pall on the peacekeeping package that seems to be slowly, painfully emerging. Better then, if the Europeans and the US had worked out their differences in private with Kofi Anan, then announced the outcome in one fell swoop. Too bad the lines of communications are so tattered and animosities so strong that differences have to aired in public to score points before they can be set aside to agree on the mutually acceptable.

Likewise the US-South-Korea handover.

But here, the consequence for Japan could be serious. The transfer will be seen by many quarters as a prelude to a US pullout. In fact, supporters of the Sunshine Policy could very well see an ultimate withdrawal as yet another step to defuse tension with North Korea. But that would eliminate North Korea’s bête noir on the peninsula. Given Pyongyang’s need for a credible security threat to maintain its isolation for the rest of the world and its grip over its subjects, it is sure to upgrade the threat from Japan, including but not limited to the US forces there.

Japan will also feel threatened if it feels it may no longer have a security buffer on the Korean Peninsula. It will feel compelled to cooperate even more closely with the US and, more seriously, strengthen its own defense capabilities. This in turn will not only justify North (and possibly South) Korean fears, but also raise further Chinese concerns over Japan’s strategic ambiguity in the Taiwan Straits. China then will be compelled to strengthen its naval military capabilities.

All this is conjecture. But Subic Bay this is not. At a minimum, premature transfer could destabilize security relationships in East Asia and trigger an unwanted escalation of military preparedness. If only it were not for the antipathies building up between the US and its once steadfast allies. (Okay, France has always been France, but at least they could be relied on to come through when it came to their sphere of traditional influence.)

In Japan, only the hard right could welcome an outcome like that.











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