Today's date:
Summer 2000

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 America’s security strategy that has maintained stability in the Asia-Pacific region for the past two decades. However, profound events—many of which are not under the control of the United States—are undermining that strategy today.
America’s 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 People’s Republic of China, based on the "One China" policy; and America’s 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 their neighbors.

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 Japan’s 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 country’s 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 government’s 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 China’s membership in the WTO.

Premier Zhu’s 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 Taiwan’s 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 People’s Liberation Army has stated that its new strategy will be to increase its offensive capability—its 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 Russia’s 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 to Taiwan.

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 region’s 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 America’s allies in the region adopt two alternative strategies:

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 parties—the 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 theory—it 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 world’s 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 it—we 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 news—at least we know how not to use our power. I hope, in time, we figure out how to use it—and to use it in ways that benefit the security and stability of all nations, not just our own.

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