The New Danger of a Nuclear Arms Race in Asia
William Perry, the former US secretary of defense,
heads the Presidential Review Committee on North Korea.
Palo Alto, Calif.In the absence of any regional institution comparable
to NATO in Europe, it is Americas security strategy that has maintained
stability in the Asia-Pacific region for the past two decades. However,
profound eventsmany of which are not under the control of the United
Statesare undermining that strategy today.
Americas strategy in the Asia-Pacific region has had three components:
bilateral treaties in the region, attended by a strong forward deployment
of military forces; engagement with the Peoples Republic of China,
based on the "One China" policy; and Americas actions,
in conjunction with its allies, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons
in the region.
Each of these components is being undermined today and could lead to conflict.
The first undermining force is that the long-lasting prosperity in the
region, which has provided the political basis for support of the American
strategy, is now under question. Most of the countries afflicted by the
Asian financial crisis have made at least partial recoveries this past
year, but it is now clear to all nations in the region that their financial
health can be affected to some degree by the financial mismanagement of
The crisis only added to the problems that Japan has had trying to pull
out of the financial recession it has been in for most of this past decade.
And this recession is not just Japans problem, since Japan plays
a critical role as a financial engine for all countries in the region.
China was relatively unaffected by the Asian financial crisis, but it
appears that, for unrelated reasons, the countrys long-lasting economic
boom may be fading. Real growth in China has been down these past two
years, probably more than the official figures indicate.
More significantly, the accession of China to the World Trade Organization
will inevitably expose the inefficiencies of state-owned enterprises.
The governments attempts to make these enterprises efficient enough
to be competitive in world markets will be an enormous undertaking. At
best it will be a wrenching experience; at worst, it could result in vast
unemployment, with attendant social and political unrest that could affect
the security of the entire region.
A second development that could upset security and stability in the region
is that the engagement between the US and China could revert to confrontation.
Today China is rising as an economic, political and military power in
the Pacific. And that has led to areas of conflict with the US.
In the past year, a whole series of incidents occurred that caused a major
setback to engagement. Premier Zhu Rongji, in his visit to Washington,
had expected to get an agreement on Chinese membership in the World Trade
Organization, but went home empty-handed. This clearly reduced the influence
of Zhu and his reformist supporters, and as a consequence set back engagement,
even though the US eventually agreed to Chinas membership in the
Premier Zhus visit was followed by the accidental bombing of the
Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which Chinese government officials seem to
believe was deliberate. During this same period, the American Congress
made public a report that accused the Chinese government of conducting
a systematic and extensive program to steal military secrets from the
US. Then Taiwans President Lee Deng Hui stated that the relations
between China and Taiwan should be as "two states." The Chinese,
regarding this as a virtual declaration of independence, responded by
cutting off the cross-straits talks with Taiwan.
Finally, in March, the Taiwanese conducted a presidential election. The
Chinese did not resort to missile firings, as they did during the 1996
elections, but rather tried intimidation by inflammatory rhetoric, apparently
trying to discourage the Taiwanese from electing Chen Shui-bian, the candidate
of the Democratic Progressive Party. However, it appears that this rhetoric
backfired, since Chen was elected.
It is too early to forecast the actions of either the Chinese government
or the new administration in Taiwan, but I fear that the situation could
lead to a crisis more dangerous than previous crises.
The Peoples Liberation Army has stated that its new strategy will
be to increase its offensive capabilityits ability to project military
power. It is not hard to imagine that the motivation for this new strategy
is to achieve a credible capability to put military pressure on Taiwan.
One consequence of this strategy has been the buildup of Chinese missile
forces across the straits from Taiwan.
In response, Taiwan has requested that the US supply it with additional
military equipment, including air-defense and missile-defense systems.
China has stated that the deployment of missile defenses would spark an
arms race in the region.
In fact, the Chinese government has already begun discussions with Moscow
about acquiring some of Russias strategic capability, including
sophisticated penetration aids. I share the Chinese concern over the deleterious
effect of an arms race in the region, but I believe that if an arms race
does get underway it will have been stimulated by the extensive deployment
of missiles, not the deployment of missile defenses.
I have suggested to the Chinese that the best way to avoid such an arms
race is for them to declare a moratorium on the further deployments of
missiles that target Taiwan. However, it is clear that they are not taking
this advice and are in fact accelerating the deployment of such missiles,
which in turn adds to the pressure in the US to supply missile defenses
Thus there is a potential for a new arms race starting in the Pacific.
As a result, I am more pessimistic today about the future of US-China
relations than I have been for several decades.
The third major concern with our past security strategy is that the nuclear
calculus has undergone a change. For most of the past few decades, nuclear
weapons played no explicit role in the regions security. This has
now changed because India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and
declared themselves to be nuclear nations. They have programs underway
to adapt this nuclear capability to delivery systems, including ballistic
missiles, and to produce these weapons in some quantity. It is only a
matter of time until they deploy nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. This
greatly increases the danger that they will be used, either in anger or
through a failure of command and control.
Korea is, of course, the most dangerous case of proliferation in Asia.
The policy review committee on North Korea I head for President Clinton
has recommended that Americas allies in the region adopt two alternative
If North Korea is willing to forgo its long-range missile program as well
as its nuclear weapons program, we should be willing to move in a step-by-step
path to a comprehensive normalization of relations. Alternatively, if
North Korea does not demonstrate by its actions that it is willing to
remove the threat, we must take actions to contain the threat.
I understand as well as anyone that threat containment is expensive and
dangerous, so obviously I prefer the first strategy. But the US cannot
unilaterally enforce the first strategy since its viability depends on
cooperation from North Korea.
For the moment, North Korea has not yet set a date for the high-level
talks, but has agreed to restart the missile discussions, presumably to
be followed by the high-level talks. I have told the president that I
believe that we should pursue these talks with the North Koreans seriously
and creatively. But I have warned him that it will be extremely difficult
to reach an agreement that will be acceptable to all involved partiesthe
North Koreans, our allies, and the American Congress. Therefore, I have
told the president that the United States should "keep its powder
dry." In particular, we should make no reductions in military deployments
or readiness during the talks.
Not only is the Cold War over, so also is the post-Cold War era. In struggling
to formulate a new strategy for this new era I believe that there are
three clear guidelines:
1 Because of the unprecedented destructive power of weapons of mass destruction,
war cannot be an acceptable instrument of foreign policy in the 21st century,
as it was in the 20th century.
2 Because of the unprecedented development in technology, especially in
communications and transportation, we are one world. This is neither a
proposal, nor a theoryit is an existential reality. Somehow our
political and economic policies must recognize that reality. In particular,
it is clear that any American security strategy must be formulated in
full cooperation with our allies in the region and with full consideration
of the interests of other powers in the region.
3 For the foreseeable future, the US will be the worlds leader in
military strength, economic strength, and technology.
The bad news is that America did not seek this leadership, and often does
not know how to use itwe seem to oscillate between not using it
at all or using it in ways that seem arrogant to other nations.
A few years ago, during my last meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin, he told me: "The US is the only nation in history that has
had dominant military and economic power, and did not use it for imperialistic
ends." So that perhaps is the good newsat least we know how
not to use our power. I hope, in time, we figure out how to use itand
to use it in ways that benefit the security and stability of all nations,
not just our own.
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