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Sunday, June 2, 2002


New threats to East Asian security

EAST ASIA IMPERILLED: Transnational Challenges to Security, by Alan Dupont. Cambridge University Press, 2001, 336 pp., $25 (paper)

The way we think about national security is changing. Traditionally, the idea of protecting a nation focused on military contests over power, wealth or territory. Not surprisingly, military strength was the chief determinant of war and peace. States and governments were the key players involved.

No longer. As Alan Dupont explains in this important study, national security establishments must expand their perspectives and consider new forces and actors that are shaping the threat environment.

Remember the smog/haze that blanketed Southeast Asia in 1997-98? The haze was caused by fires in Indonesia that were lit to clear forests. The smoke caused serious health problems and substantial economic losses (by scaring off tourists and forcing companies and schools to shut down) throughout the region. It wasn't deliberate state action against another country; no state actor was directly involved, although corruption was a contributing cause. This is one of the new types of security challenges that we need to consider.

In "East Asia Imperilled," Dupont, a former diplomat who now teaches at Australian National University, outlines three types of new security issues: environmental problems, which include threats created by population growth, deforestation, pollution, climate change, and shortages of energy, food and water; unregulated population movements, or UPMs, which can be caused by war, labor migration or environmental problems; and transnational crime-related issues, which include criminal organizations, drug trafficking and AIDS.

These issues overlap. Overpopulation leads to high rates of urbanization as people move to cities in search of jobs. Megalopolises strain governments more concerned with economic development than social safety nets. A large pool of under- or unemployed youth is a potential time bomb. Rising population levels force farmers to increase crop yields, making land barren sooner, draining water tables and increasing the competition for food resources. Environmental degradation intensifies the cycle.

Energy shortages are likely to be a major cause of friction. As Dupont notes, "East Asia lacks the energy resources to meet its growing needs, especially oil, which is in short supply. . . . Energy self-sufficiency is expected to fall from 43 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2015, by which time East Asia may have to import as much as 70 percent of its oil." The fear of shortages of critical resources such as energy and fish is behind many of the territorial disputes that dot the region and could erupt into conflict.

Dupont argues that the "security dynamics of transnational phenomena are more complex and interconnected than the Cold War drivers of conflict. . . . Resource vulnerabilities involve resources that are fundamental to survival and that once were considered so abundant that they were deemed to be inexhaustible. Vulnerabilities are being made more acute by destruction and degradation of the natural environment. Scarcity is aggravating border disputes and creating new tensions."

Those tensions are aggravated by UPMs. There are about 100 million displaced people in the world, and East Asia has an estimated 2 to 3 million internal and cross-border refugees, as well as 4 to 5 million undocumented labor migrants searching for economic opportunities. They are big business. It is estimated that about 4 million people are being smuggled or trafficked across international borders every year, a business worth about $7 to $12 billion annually; that's about as much money as the illegal drug trade.

Like drug trafficking, people smuggling is often the province of organized crime groups. As Dupont points out, these groups have been quick to exploit globalization. "While governments remain sovereignty bound, criminals are increasingly sovereignty free, operating with relative impunity across borders made permeable by the transnational flow of people, money and information." These have traditionally been considered law-enforcement issues, but new international crime organizations operate well beyond the scrutiny of any national legal establishment.

The sinking of the suspected North Korean spy boat last December is a fascinating case study. North Koreans are thought to have been smuggling illegal drugs with assistance from Chinese triads and Japanese yakuza. Payoffs were undoubtedly part of the program. This "law enforcement problem" involved four nations (Japan, China, North Korea and South Korea) and the military forces of at least one nation (Japan). The chase and pursuit had the potential to become an international incident if other navies had become involved.

A final issue that Dupont discusses is AIDS. The scale of the problem is alarming. According to Dupont, "Asia has already overtaken Africa as the epicenter of the disease [but] its full impact will not be felt for perhaps another decade. . . . It is estimated that Asian economies forfeited on the order of $38 to $52 billion in lost production and spiraling health expenditures between 1995 and 2000, while others estimate that Southeast Asia could sacrifice between 1.7 percent and 2.3 percent of gross domestic product. The vice president of the Asian Development Bank has aptly characterized AIDS as "the enemy of the Asian promise.' "

It is estimated that AIDS-related deaths in China could equal all the fatalities from armed conflict in East Asia between 1945 and 1999. The disease is a tragedy with extraordinary human and social costs, but it is so far outside the traditional "national security" paradigm that it makes the concept lose all meaning.

Some theorists have argued that calling environmental problems "security issues" raises a similar concern: The problem is all-encompassing and stretches the links between the problem and solution to a point where it is not useful to even think in terms of security. Faced with such an amorphous concept, it is tempting to just ignore the problem or push it around the interagency process.

That leads to more practical concerns. The issue areas Dupont identifies involve actors and agencies that are not part of the security network, and are not prepared to tackle these issues within a national security framework. At the same time, "agencies responsible for formulating and implementing national security policy are often poorly equipped, intellectually and organizationally, for dealing with transnational issues."

For that reason, security professionals should read this book. As "East Asia Imperilled" makes abundantly clear, these issues are emerging with a new intensity and salience. We don't have much time to prepare. Alan Dupont has done us all a favor by sounding the alarm.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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