February 12th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Kim Beazley - Labor's only hope?

EDITORIAL: Barking up the wrong tree ...

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Top free-market think-tank warns of 'banana republic'

SPECIAL FEATURE: Who speaks and acts for the communist dead?

BUSHFIRES: COAG inquiry skirts the real issues

VICTORIA: Judge links pornography and sexual assault

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Iraq election and the problem of Iran / Bushrangers hanging around the hospitals / Climbing the ladder to nowhere

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: US trade deals marginalise WTO

EAST ASIA: US's new strategy in the Far East

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS: First direct flights from Taiwan to mainland

OPINION: Good riddance to compulsory student unionism

The slaughtered generation (letter)

The Governor-General and the Constitution (letter)

CINEMA: Quality French film wins following - Les Choristes


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US's new strategy in the Far East

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, February 12, 2005
The Bush Administration's recently released Global Postures Review involves re-deploying US military forces currently stationed around the world. It doesn't just adjust overall force levels; it also aims to pull 70,000 to 100,000 troops out of Europe and Asia.

Currently, more than 100,000 US troops are based in Europe - about 70 per cent of them in Germany, and 100,000 in the Asia-Pacific. Most of the troops to be moved from Europe and Asia will return to America, along with an estimated 100,000 support-staff and families.

This is not to say that America plans to reduce its ability to intervene militarily around the world; it is about global realignment of US forces and capabilities.

Last August, President Bush announced plans to cut back the US troop presence in Korea. The US will not only diminish its military presence there, but will also relocate its remaining troops away from the demilitarised zone (DMZ), but within South Korea.

Straits of Malacca

It is significant that the move coincides with a US plan to patrol the Straits of Malacca in the same region.

President Bush said that, in Northeast Asia, "we are working with our strongest allies to restructure our military presence and command structures, while simultaneously improving capabilities in the region". The joint US-Japan research project on developing missile-defence technology is an example of the strategy.

Meanwhile, the US has shifted nearly 4,000 of its troops from South Korea to Iraq. Many do not think that the US's move will in any way lessen the effectiveness of the US military to operate in this part of the world. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has said, "There will be no change in the strategic balance in East Asia."

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon has expressed a similar view that the new US deployment will not create a "security vacuum".

Indeed, Washington is willing to enhance the quality of its military co-operation with Seoul by deploying more precision-guided weapons systems, including advanced missiles.

Moreover, the Pentagon has promised a US$11 billion modernisation plan to upgrade South Korean facilities as part of efforts to increase its capability, even though it is reducing troop levels.

Korea remains a major politico-strategic issue in Washington's East Asia policy for three main reasons:

(a) The deep distrust and hostility between the North and South Korean governments have generally barred the way to serious efforts at reconciliation.

(b) A divided Korea has generally suited the powers.

(c) The consequences of another Korean War would be catastrophic.

Since 1950, the paramount objective of the US and other major powers in the region has been to prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula. The US has sought to maintain the status quo between the two Koreas by fostering its relationship with South Korea and using diplomacy to defuse conflict between north and south.

The US has traditionally sought to prevent the rise of a hostile power, or group of powers, capable of dominating Asia. In the past, this meant playing balance-of-power politics to prevent domination by Japan and Russia, and also to contain Soviet and Chinese communism.

Related to this is Korea's inherent strategic importance as the fulcrum of major power interests in Northeast Asia and the relative lack of change over the years in the objective conditions on the Korean Peninsula.

These conditions derive from:

  • the physical division of the peninsula into two distrustful and antagonistic systems;

  • North Korea's perceived long-standing commitment to bring the entire peninsula under its control;

  • North Korea's ongoing development of a range of means and capabilities to achieve these goals, including Pyongyang's efforts to develop an atomic bomb; and

  • the perceived inability of South Korea to defend itself against large-scale North Korean attack without US assistance.

Also included are the historically difficult relations between the two Koreas and the major regional powers.

The US has a broader interest in fostering the spread of market-oriented economies and democratic political systems. This interest is rooted in the American belief, generally confirmed by history, that an open, democratic world is a safer, more prosperous and secure world for the USA and the world at large. Active and sustained US involvement in Korea furthers this interest, as South Korea's progress toward a more democratic polity and open economy testifies.

Altogether, these factors have underpinned support in the United States for a sustained role in Korean security.

The US devotes over $10 billion a year to South Korea's defence effort. Although the South Korean military is becoming increasingly capable of defending the South against its northern rival, the US security guarantee remains essential for two reasons:

First, in the short to medium term, Seoul feels that the threat of a northern attack on the south remains high owing to internal political imperatives in the North. Seoul also fears that Pyongyang, in the face of declining military strength, might risk a strike before the balance of military strength turns too far against the North. Seoul believes that only the preservation of a strong US security commitment to defend the South offers an adequate deterrent to potential North Korean adventurism.

Second, South Korean policy-makers from time to time have recognised that, in the long term, their nation remains surrounded by powerful, potentially hostile states: Japan, China and the USSR/Russia. A security link to a powerful, friendly, but distant state such as the US, with vital interests in the region, significantly enhances South Korea's strategic position.

The preservation of close ties with the US, however, has not always been easy. Tensions clearly exist, notably in economic relations.

US pressure on trade issues is often deeply resented among the Korean populace, which perceives the United States as a rich bully. Such pressure fuels the rise of anti-Americanism.

Trade issues will be a major issue in US-South Korean relations for some time to come.

It is against such a background that the partial US pullout from South Korea took place. A related question is why Bush did not try to shift some US military personnel from Japan, too.

Military strike

Pyongyang suspects that the US may actually be preparing the ground stealthily for a possible pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea.

The evidence they cite is the removal of US troops from the line of Pyongyang's conventional fire, where they would be the first to suffer retaliation in the event of a US nuclear strike against the North.

Almost everyone agrees that the secretive one-party state should not be allowed to continue with its nuclear-weapons program. The cause of the huge explosion at Ryongchon in North Korea remains a mystery, but has focused attention on the secretive totalitarian régime of Kim Jong-il, which has been involved in nuclear-weapons testing, offensive missile production and drug-running.

The six-party talks and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are cases in point. Washington leads this Proliferation Security Initiative to intervene in the global arms trade. A mixture of conventional law-enforcement, intelligence and naval firepower, the PSI has tightened international co-operation in blocking weapons exports, especially missile sales. It began with 13 nations, including Australia, and has expanded to almost 80.

Why are the North Koreans trying to make nuclear weapons? There are four possible uses for them: deterrence; attacking another country; as an export-earner; and as a bargaining chip in negotiations. A nuclear deterrent would certainly stop a US attack, but a North Korean use of that tiny deterrent force, whether in defence or attack, would be suicidal.

After the revelations in February 2004 about Pakistan's nuclear black-market operations, Korean export of nuclear technology would be virtually impossible. They have no exports other than narcotics, missiles and forced labour, and these are all becoming impossible to sustain post-9/11. That means the real purpose of the weapons is for use as a bargaining chip in a deal for massive aid and possibly a security guarantee for the Pyongyang régime.

This poses a problem for Japan. North Korea analyst Gary Samore has estimated that over the next few years North Korea could complete facilities capable of producing sufficient plutonium and highly-enriched uranium for up to a dozen nuclear weapons annually, in addition to its suspected current stockpile of one or two nuclear weapons. The potential for North Korea to sell such weapons on the black market to rogue states or terrorists, in order to raise much-needed funds, is alarming.

Furthermore, its ballistic-missile program has the capacity to strike Japan, which is only 8.5 minutes flying time from North Korea. If North Korea were to develop this capacity, Japan would become completely dependent on America's nuclear umbrella.

If the Bush Administration tries to consolidate US military hegemony by establishing a missile-defence system, Japan will plan to increase its influence in Northeast Asia by obtaining advanced missile technology. Moreover, Japan has the technology to quickly convert its space program to the production of advanced missiles.

President Bush's view is that Japan should be the focus of American security politics in the Asia-Pacific. His administration sees Japan as an increasingly important global partner in peacekeeping, in promoting democracy, in protecting the environment, and in addressing major challenges in Northeast Asia. Japan is strategically more dependent on the US than it was during the Cold War, and that dependence is likely to grow rather than diminish during the next two or three decades.

Japan is important in US defence calculations. Likewise, the US will continue to figure prominently in Japan's defence and security policies. The general feeling is that Japan would like to have even closer relations with Washington, which could help to "guarantee Japan's security".

Under Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, Japan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the US-led war on terrorism, with Japanese combat personnel being dispatched overseas for the first time without UN authorisation.

Moreover, after years of prevaricating, Japan has also signed up to the United States global system of missile defence. Certainly, US pressure had a great deal to do with both decisions, but perhaps more importantly, the rhetoric of the Bush doctrine offered Prime Minister Koizumi a chance to further his national agenda.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja

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