Talking Peace, Preparing for War

Northeast Asia heaved a sigh of relief at the latest news of a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea. The prospects of integrating North Korea into the international community and constructing a peace and security structure for the region have never been rosier.

But the headlines of the United States and North Korea narrowing their differences over the declaration of the latter’s nuclear programme are deceptive. Despite all the talk of peace in the current Six-Party Talks, the military trends in the region tell a very different story.

Even though it looks relatively peaceful on the outside, Northeast Asia is in fact the heart of the global military-industrial complex. The armies that confront each other in this region — the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas — are the largest in the world. They are responsible for at least 65 percent of the world’s military spending.

Not only is Northeast Asia one of the most heavily militarised regions of the world, it is currently in the middle of a major arms race. Five of the six countries in the negotiations to shut down North Korea’s nuclear programme have increased their military spending by 50 percent or more in the last five years.

Recent events are only making matters worse. The cold war is heating up again on the Korean peninsula in the wake of conservative Lee Myung Bak’s inauguration as South Korea’s new president. China is desperately trying to put out fires on its periphery, from Tibet to Xinjiang. And nationalist politicians in Japan are pushing for an end to the country’s “peace constitution”.

Northeast Asia’s arms race, which has been largely hidden from view, is threatening to break into the open.

The most paradoxical part of this arms race is in Korea itself. Although the two halves of the peninsula have established joint ventures, tourism projects, and numerous cultural exchanges over the last decade, both sides continue to spend copious amounts on the military.

South Korean presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun touted their engagement policies with the North. But between 1999 and 2006, South Korean military spending jumped more than 70 percent. In 2007, South Korea launched its first Aegis-equipped destroyer and announced a plan to build three more at a cost of 1.0 billion dollars each by 2020. The new South Korean president Lee Myung Bak has supported this vision of a new blue water navy, and South Korean military spending will go up by an estimated 10 percent a year through 2020. Although it spends anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of its entire GDP on the military, North Korea can’t keep up with the South, which spends as much, or more, on its military than the North’s entire gross domestic product. The decline of North Korea’s economy has undermined its conventional military posture, which is one reason Pyongyang opted for a nuclear programme in the first place. In other words, the current nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia today is at least partly a result of the region’s accelerating conventional arms race and North Korea’s inability to keep pace.

This approach of “peace through strength” on the Korean peninsula owes a great deal to the policies of the most powerful military force in the region.

The United States, responsible for nearly 50 percent of all global military expenditures, is the prime mover of the arms race regionally and internationally. The George W. Bush administration has increased military spending 74 percent since 2001. A sizable portion of the 607-billion-dollar Pentagon budget request for 2009, which doesn’t even include the supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will go to maintaining and expanding the U.S. military presence in the Pacific. And none of the leading presidential candidates has recommended freezing, much less reducing, U.S. military outlays.

The big-ticket items in next year’s budget — the CVN-78 Advanced Aircraft Carrier, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-Class Destroyer — are of little use in fighting terrorism. The Pentagon’s long-range plan to build a 313-ship navy is meant to counter the only potential great power that the United States sees on the horizon: China.

China is spending around 50 billion dollars a year on its military. But if U.S. estimates are correct, China’s actual defence budget is closer to 120 billion dollars, which makes it the number two military spender in the world. With this money, China is pushing forward with an ambitious naval programme that will include the addition of five new nuclear-powered attack subs and a mid-sized aircraft carrier.

China is also modernising its air force with an upgrade of fighters, tanker aircraft, and transport planes. Even with this modernisation programme, however, China’s military pales in comparison to U.S. forces in the Pacific region and makes no attempt to rival U.S. global reach.

Part of the U.S. strategy to offset China’s rising power in the region has been to push Japan to create a “normal” military. Japan’s peace constitution has constrained the offensive capabilities of the Japanese military, still referred to as the Self-Defence Forces, since the end of World War II.

More recently, an influential group of policymakers in the ruling party want to break free of these constraints. The Japanese military is not satisfied with what is already a top-notch military. This year, the air force will be upgraded with an in-air refueling capability to permit long-range bombing missions.

Also on the wish list of the Japanese Defence Agency — which was upgraded to ministry level last year — are an aircraft carrier, F-22 Raptor stealth planes, nuclear-powered submarines, and long-range missiles. Defence spending remains low in Japan, and it is the only country in the region that hasn’t dramatically increased its military budget. But that will change as part of “normalising” the country’s military and foreign policy.

A closer U.S.-Japan military alliance is only the beginning. At the upcoming summit between President Bush and Lee Myung-Bak, one proposal on the table is a new security alliance for Asia that would link the United States, South Korea, Japan, and possibly other countries in Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Such talk of explicit alliances, as well as Washington’s moves to establish a global missile defence system and encroach on Russian interests in Central Asia, has encouraged Moscow to boost its own military spending and ramp up cooperation with China. With the renewed growth of the Russian economy on the strength of energy sales, Russian arms expenditures began to take off again in the new millennium, increasing nearly four-fold between 2000 and 2006.

The old geopolitical competition between the continental powers of the “Eurasian heartland” and the maritime powers of the “rimland” is re-emerging. China, Russia, and the Central Asian states have built the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. And the United States is building its own necklace of allies from India to Australia to Japan to contain this Eurasian challenge.

This spiraling arms race jeopardises all short-term victories, such as the recent compromise between the United States and North Korea. And it raises the stakes for what might otherwise be rather minor disagreements, such as the Japanese and Korean dispute over Tokdo/Takeshima island.

But the arms race in Northeast Asia and globally is not simply a potential threat. The international community needs a huge amount of capital to address a range of current threats — nuclear proliferation, climate change, the destabilising gap between rich and poor. By drawing funds away from human needs, many analysts believe this new arms race is itself a threat to humanity.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.