East Asia Security Meeting in London: Anxiety Grows in Region?
Harry C. Blaney III
On Thursday, November 14th Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) held an interesting meeting on “The Strategic Environment in East Asia.” The question addressed was first an assessment of the region’s key strategic issues and specifically the problem of North Korea, the relationship between China and America, and the strategic policy of the Japanese Prime Minister Abe. The second part of the meeting focused on the issue of the conflict over maritime conflict in the region especially in the South China Sea.
The perspectives were varied and the attendance of a strong contingent from Japan give the conference a good idea of the Japanese perspective and how that country viewed their security risks and their likely approach towards these risks. The Japanese government representative and those from a key “think tank” the Institute of International Affairs, noted a number of likely Japanese new initiatives related to foreign and security policy as well as strengthening existing alliances.
There appears to be a move towards altering the Japanese Constitution giving greater leeway for the Japanese government to undertake a more pro-active stance towards threats and future confrontations than is permitted by the strict “defense only” provisions in the constitution. Another question that will be coming up is what are the appropriate resources to allocate for their own defense forces. As with other nations there are limited funds and demands by sea, land, and air arms for added equipment and personnel. Nor least, is the indication that they want to reinforce their alliance with the United States and to get European powers like the U.K. to be more supportive of their ocean jurisdictional claims. The key phrase was that the U.S.- Japan alliance is a “core policy.” In many ways it was an affirmation of President Obama’s initiative of the “pivot to Asia.” But an “assertive” Japan still posses other problems for actors in the region.
The focus of the Japanese experts was the recognition that their security landscape has some major rising risks which need to be better addressed than has been the case up-to-now. They saw North Korea as a key unsettling force with a growing stock of nuclear weapons and also they were concerned with their relations with South Korea, which has to be a key partner on any solution to the future of the Korean Peninsula conundrum.
Yet the uncertainty of the direction and behavior of North Korea was seen as a serious problem and danger. They saw the U.S. bases in Japan as essential for the defense of South Korea. Another disturbing element was cooperation between North Korea, Iran, Israel, perhaps others, in military and nuclear equipment and arms. The conclusion was that in the current negotiations, “time was on the North Korean side” thus there was urgency in finding a solution.
From the South they saw the rise of China and its increased more capable military forces as well as the growth of a new nationalism and assertive and even dangerous behavior or confrontation in this maritime disputed area. One presenter showed a chart of the number and types of Chinese navel vessels and comparted them to weaker or smaller forces of other key nations in the Pacific including the U.S.
There was considerable discussion of how to make a bridge or rapprochement with China and find a way not only to find a solution to the South China Sea differences, but more importantly, over the long run to seek a more fundamental arrangement with China over the next decade seeking a peaceful and cooperative relationship. Several speakers said that economic ties would be key between the second and third largest global economies.
One issue that was raised was the concept of ‘the inevitable confrontation/war between the U.S. and China.” This is another myopic and ideological driven idea by the war hawks of the “Chicago School” and neo-cons in America and also fueled in China by some of its military. It is a concept that was rejected by one wise speaker and certainly by this writer and has the danger of being a “self-fulfilling” prophesy. It serves only those who make a living from conflict.
One question that was raised by this writer, was how could the collective nations of the Pacific region work in a better concerted way to point the path not only to a productive and peaceful regional and global role for China, but create key incentives for China to be a responsible partner and see a deep and lasting stake in collective security and prosperity for the whole region and a sense of joint interest in maintaining peace.
Frankly, the meeting only reinforced the need for a more concerted and focused effort by regional actors to see a common interests. But to do that it is necessary to get the North Korean threat resolved favorably as it is a systemic dangerous disruption to an area wide reconciliation and understanding. Also some accommodation on Taiwan by all sides, an acceptable deal perhaps on some kind of joint exploitation of resources in the South China Sea, and not least a major expansion of trade between all Pacific powers. Helpful would be an agreement of restraint on military/nuclear weapons growth and competition.
What is interesting is that the Japanese have reorganized their national security decision making along the lines of the U.S. modal with even a process of policy papers called National Security Studies (NSS) much along lines established by Henry Kissinger for our NSC in the Nixon administration. But this is aimed for a whole new look at their security position and aimed at a more active security role in the region.
Not surprising, the Chinese have also just announced a reorganization of their own national security decision making machinery, making it more streamlined and tightknit. And it is clear that also they are having a major debate on their own future global role and new threat assessment. One would hope it will give the more calm and wiser heads more say over the militant military types that sometime have dominated the Chinese decision making in this area in the past.
But, America, as this blog has noted, is doing a “re-think” on both resources and strategic threats and options for a complex and changing environment. At the same time the British here in London carrying out a major re-examination of their strategic posture, force alignments, resources, and risks. The problem, as we will look at more in time here, is that it is being carried out when there is a forced major cut in funding which will necessitate some hard decision on personnel and equipment – not the wisest way to make strategic decisions, as we know in the U.S. with the Republican created “sequester”cuts. It is time for a more collective “re-think” rather than isolated limited studies as joint efforts, compatibility, and interoperability in tactics, communication, and training would help in a time of joint enforced “austerity” but a time of security uncertainty.
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