Montrose Journal Winter 06


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HIGH NOON OVER CHINA: THE CHANCES OF WAR IN THE ORIENT -

JAMES CLAD, ACADEMIC AND FORMER PENTAGON OFFICIAL

The Sleep of Reason —C. P. Snow's very fine novel of  the 1960s—carries a title eerily applicable to our  contemporary complacency about the low risk of  shooting wars any time soon in Asia.

This idyll holds that Asia's Tomorrow follows a straight line  extrapolation from Today, when peace abides with an  apparent tenacity that would have been utterly  implausible thirty years ago. Putting aside the current  edgy theatre with Pyongyang, we can say that the  sprawling Asia-Pacific region has found the right formula.

Or can we? Listening to descriptions of the Long Peace in  Asia calls to mind the common rationale in a raft of books  appearing in both Europe and America a few years before  the Great War smothered the last century's first years.

Then as now, the argument ran as follows: steadily rising  trade volumes, dense cross investments in neighbouring  countries, improved levels of material comfort, higher  education levels, the horrible efficiency of modern  weapons, evenly matched weaponry in contending  states, an equilibrium of alliances, routine cross connectivity  and, above all else, the March of Reason—all  these characterized the era.

In composite they revealed a triumph of enlightened self interest  and placed restraints against aggression like  overlapping safety nets, making war a Thing of the Past.  Of course, one must avoid too easy a recourse to  contemporary history to make a point. Trends in the past  often do little more than reveal some interesting parallels.  But the current Asian era does have a smug, repetitive  zeitgeist—one sensed since Southeast Asia's reluctant  adjustment to Vietnam's violent reunification in 1975.

Here is how it goes: There may be an occasional shot  across the bows (as in South China Sea maritime  boundary encounters) or North Korea's firing of  intermediate missiles like roman candles in 2006. Yet the  'contemporary balance'—to use strategic parlance—  remains remarkably durable. And there are many who  imagine it will endure indefinitely, as a line of speakers at  the last Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS)  'Shangri-La' conference in Singapore implied or said so  directly.

Whether seen as a 'security village' (Malaysia), or a  'spider's web' of bilateral security treaties and multilateral  security 'dialogues' (Japan), the assumption rests on a continuation of the present. As all long periods of peace  will do, the Long Peace in Asia has lulled us to think that  the stresses, strains, and chronic fissures in Asia's power  relations can be managed as tidily as routine small shifts  in the earth's tectonic plates stave off major earthquakes.  There are at least four major reasons why they cannot.

First, Sino-Japanese tension is as constant an axiom as  anything can be in international affairs. This doesn't  gainsay sincere efforts by both countries' diplomats but  rather agrees with America's best thinker about China,  former US ambassador to Beijing Jim Lilley, that the past  two hundred years and supreme questions of self-regard  guarantee rejection, by either, of any subordinate role.

This matters a great deal to our thesis because Japan's  new prime minister Abe intends not only to create,  quickly, a defence ministry (as suggested by former prime  minister Koizumi) but also to inject a new sense of  strategic purpose into Japanese security thinking—in  ways we haven't seen from Japan since the 1920s. Abe  will do this without loosening his country's reliance on the  U.S. security anchor. These new actions will fill decisively  the vacuum in Asian affairs created by Tokyo's voluntarily  vacating its strategic role after the second world war.

The second trend lies in a shift by states to naval power  projection. This move, apparent in everything from the  acquisitions drive of the Navy of the People's Liberation  Army to the procurement decisions of smaller ASEAN  states, coincides with America's global move to prepare a  'surge capacity' to reach war zones from the continental  United States. This would leave only 'warm bases', i.e.  places run by skeletal staffs but able in very short order to  ramp up to accommodate and provision an expeditionary  force, in Asia and elsewhere. Hence, the importance  attached to America's Asian presence as a "passing  gendarme," in a Thai statesman's phrase, becomes even  more acute—but this time in seas ever more crowded with  rising or re-emerging powers' navies.

The third trend towards a higher war risk in Asia arises  from China's steady intrusion (commercial, diplomatic,  energy supply, military supply and training) into Southeast  Asia. This could not differ more from old fantasies that  Communist China would overwhelm its neighbours by  force and impose an alien system. Far more successful  than Beijing's clandestine support in earlier years for  insurgent groups in Burma, Malaysia, Philippines and  Thailand, Chinese intrusion today rests on three facets:  commercial advantage plus gargantuan economies-of scale;  a benign (but still unyielding) attitude to prosecuting  Beijing's territorial claims (as in the South China Sea), and  on American inattentiveness resulting from 'global-war-on-terror' fixations.

In short, there is less and less on which Asians living in  China's shadow can draw for 'balance'. Lee Kuan Yew  famously said (when speaking of Thailand's adjustment to  rising Chinese power), that "the Thais will bend even  before the wind begins to blow."

Can India play the balancer? Not in my opinion: their  reach still exceeds their grasp. Under the Vajpayee  ministry of the late 1990s, India succeeded in getting  'outside the sub continental box', as Vajpayee's national  security adviser Brajesh Mishra would often say. Yet Delhi  remains a junior rival to China in virtually every respect  save in the systems architecture dimension of information  technology. And even in this, the Chinese are now  snapping at India's heels. Looking at military hardware,  neither India's periodic dispatch of frigates through the Malacca Straits, nor its trade/investment profile in Asia,  come close to matching China's large shadow.

The Southeast Asians cannot, within their loose  groupings, find serious common purpose to balance  China, even with American and Japanese help.  Subsurface tensions simmer—over migration, Islamic  radicalism, and borders. None are acute but, in  composite, they prevent solidarity and military  interoperability.

The last reason why war risk will rise lies in Chinese  miscalculation.We saw this troublingly at play in 1996,  when missile firings in the direction of Kaohsiung in  Taiwan required first one, then another carrier task force  to sail into the Formosa straits.

We saw this during the Chinese leadership's  encouragement of urban anti-Japanese disturbances  during 2005 and in feverish anxiety over China's bete  noire, a dash for formal independence by Taiwan. The  formal extension, in a 2004 US-Japanese strategic  memorandum, of security interest to the Formosa Strait  shook Beijing badly.

True, President George W. Bush has shown perhaps his  greatest streak of independence from his vice president  by not agreeing to give Taiwan's leadership a loose leash.  But the inevitable return of American global strategy to a  tighter focus on more 'traditional' security challenges  virtually guarantees a US retreat from that comforting [to  Beijing] policy stance—all the more so when pressure for  more overt support for Taiwan comes from the US  congress after the 2006 elections. And the core  substantive military supply issue still sits in front of  everyone, ready to pitch Sino-American relations instantly  into the ice box: when or if to sell advanced diesel  submarines to Taiwan.

We needn't bother listing all the subordinate war risks in  Asia—e.g. the temptation by PLA commanders in the  Formosa straits area to steal a march for glory at a time  when Hu Jintao's power base still remains incompletely  consolidated amid residual opposition from former  president Jiang Zemin's cohort. In this sense therefore,  the specific issue of peril to China—whether USJapanese  responses to North Korean provocations,  missteps by Taiwan, major US military sales to Taipei, or a  complex set of tensions in the South China Sea—matters  far less than the internal circumstances in China which  could badly affect how the Chinese leadership, or  portions of it, reacts.

Meanwhile, the dreaming goes on. Strategic discussions  in London,Washington, and in scrupulously polite Asian  security forums pose their basic non-issues: energy  resource competition, maritime terrorism, or the menace  of 'non-state actors' such as Muslim extremists in  Southeast Asia. Yet despite America's willingness to  recast local insurgencies as cut from the same cloth as  terrorism elsewhere, Asia does not present an arena  where state capacity really has become so weak that  others can employ violence on a large scale.

In an unclassified report for the Pentagon's Office of NET  Assessment, a unit within the office of the Secretary of  Defense, a consultant firm in 2004 listed at least eleven  'hot war' risks in Asia. All arose out of endemic local  conditions. All led to the intervention of external powers.  Many spiraled into serious military confrontations. In each  contingency, China, Japan and the United States played  decisive roles. The leitmotif above – Japanese re-entry  into the power balance; the intractability of Sino-  Japanese competition; the shift to naval power projection,  and a demonstrable risk of Chinese miscalculation – has  set the stage for a shooting war in Asia. And sooner than  we think.


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