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Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000

U.S. alliances build peace in Asia

Staff writer
AMERICA'S ASIAN ALLIANCES, edited by Robert Blackwill and Paul Dibb. The MIT Press, BCSIA Studies in International Security, 2000, 143 pp., (paper).

Asia is -- potentially -- a very dangerous place. Paul Dibb, one of Australia's leading security thinkers and co-editor of this valuable new book, explains why in his opening essay. "The Asia-Pacific region has entered a particularly complex and fluid strategic situation. The Asian economic crisis, tension between China and the United States over Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the risk of war between India and Pakistan and the potential for Indonesia to disintegrate have all occurred suddenly and serve to underline the basic insecurity of the region."

Dibb notes that, with the exception of Taiwan, none of these situations is likely to trigger a war between the major powers. Still, the dangers are real.

All nine of the contributors to "America's Asian Alliances," a joint Australian-U.S. effort, concur. They also agree that a continued U.S. presence is the key to future stability in the region. The U.S. has served as a benevolent hegemon, ever-present but distant. While some might dispute just how "benevolent" the U.S. really has been, it is hard to imagine any other power filling that role without forcing drastic shifts in regional political alignments.

The odds of a U.S. retreat are pretty slim. Philip Zelikow, a former U.S. National Security Council staffer who now teaches history at the University of Virginia, argues that fears of isolationism are misplaced: The U.S. has long had an Asian presence. The debate over U.S. engagement might be relevant in the European context, but not in Asia.

Zelikow's contribution is a point-by-point demolition of the "myths" surrounding U.S. foreign policy in Asia. His key points are: 1) In 1900, the U.S. was widely and deeply engaged in the affairs of Asia; 2) In Asia, the U.S. has always been on the frontline; 3) "the U.S. never built up political, economic or military institutions in Asia of a strength and durability comparable to those created in Europe"; and finally 4) "Equilibrium in Asia is less stable and the security institutions in place to preserve peace are more fragile. So Asia really is different, and distinctive, and so is U.S. policy toward the region."

(The two essays by Zelikow and Dibb are stellar. Get the book for them alone.)

The remaining chapters examine the institutions the U.S. has set up to keep the peace in Asia: its bilateral relationships with Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Although the chapter on the Japan-U.S. alliance will be of particular interest here, it breaks little new ground. It argues that the alliance is "less unbalanced" than is commonly thought and that the bases are "critical to the U.S. concept of its own security." It calls for a comprehensive U.S. policy toward Asia, and better alliance management. To that end, planners should favor incremental, rather than drastic, change; efforts should be made to build public support for the alliance in both countries; there should be increased bilateral consultations. It is pretty standard fare.

The chapter on Korea is more interesting. The peace overtures between the two Koreas have changed the security dynamic. That is, even if officials argue that North Korea is still a threat to the South, perceptions of the North have changed and managing the alliance is going to become more difficult.

U.S. forces will probably have to be cut, but the authors note that the U.S. presence allows the Koreas to pursue relations with all regional powers. Without Washington, a move by one Korea toward one country would require balancing moves by other governments. "Absent such assurances, Seoul might feel compelled to establish security links with one of its larger neighbors, to the perceived detriment of the other two: a destabilizing prospect, especially if it resulted in a Sino-Korean relationship seemingly aimed at Japan."

The chapter on the Australian-U.S. spoke in the wheel is interesting, if only because it sheds light on an important alliance that is little appreciated outside of the Southern Hemisphere.

The concluding chapter, by former Ambassador Robert Blackwill, is controversial. Blackwill is a European specialist, and it shows. The phrasing of his suggestions, and references to them throughout the book, reveal serious disagreements with the other contributors. In short, he brings a European approach to Asian problems, and it is extremely questionable whether that outlook will work.

Blackwill wants to increase coordination among the four alliances. In theory, this makes sense. As he explains, "with a combined population of almost 500 million, their economies together are nearly $13 trillion. Their democratic values are a beacon for all in the region who thirst for political diversity and the rule of law. . . . From the Korean Peninsula to East Timor, these four democracies will be the prime movers for a broad and successful Asian transition to democratic practices in a context of growing prosperity."

Blackwill calls for the four governments to "strengthen and bring closer together their alliances"; they should, "as much as possible, engage in a collective strategic dialogue and coordinate their policies toward major issues and crisis contingencies in Asia. Japan should be urged to gradually enhance its defensive role in Asia. Policies toward China should be harmonized and coordinated. Finally, he says the governments should not rely on Asia's multilateral security structures in the short run, but should be ready to work to create such mechanisms.

That is impossible -- at least now and in the midterm. Conditions across the region are too variable, and the interests of and constraints faced by the different alliance partners -- Japan, Korea and Australia -- are too variegated for them to act as a unit. Even the appearance of a united front against China would trigger fears of containment in Beijing. That could create the monster everyone wants to avoid.

There is little inclination among the governments involved to build a multilateral security framework. ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum seem to have convinced participants that the limits of coordination have been reached. Asia just isn't ready for much more than what already exists. America's Asian alliances will continue to bear the brunt of regional security, for better or for worse.

Brad Glosserman can be contacted at brad@japantimes.co.jp.

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