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Asia in Global Security

A paper prepared for the SIPRI 40th Anniversary, Session ‘Global Powers, Global Threats’, Stockholm, 13 December 2006

Asia in Global Security

An Epicentre of New Instability –

Masako Ikegami

Professor & Director, Center for Pacific Asia Studies (CPAS), Stockholm University

In post-Cold War Europe the risk of major armed conflicts has been reduced to a very low level,1 and unconventional threats such as terrorism currently dominate European security concerns. In Asia by contrast, the picture is much gloomier; there is still a risk of conventional inter-state conflicts and power struggles, as well as unconventional threats. While the peace process between India and Pakistan has progressed since 2004, there are still two flash-points in East Asia, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, where the risk of inter-state conflict involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) cannot be ruled out in the worst case of conflict escalation. Additionally, the East China Sea and Spratly Islands can be counted as a risk zone for armed conflicts over territory and natural resources, as China’s hunt for natural resources is intensifying, backed by its growing military muscle. China’s rapid military build-up is a challenge to many countries in the region. Meanwhile, the USA’s overseas forces are undergoing global re-deployment and re-organization, which affects the Asia-Pacific region, adding another factor of regional security uncertainty in the coming years. The lack of credible regional confidence and security building measures in East Asia can only aggravate this already volatile situation.

The North Korean Nuclear Test, a Disaster for the NPT regime

North Korea’s nuclear test of 9 October 2006 was a disaster for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. Despite the numerous signs suggesting that North Korea’s nuclear test was imminent, the international community (not just the United States) failed to act in a timely, concerted and determined manner to prevent the nuclear test. In the past, North Korea had constantly and steadily raised the level of its claims and actions2, but each time the international community reacted with ‘benign neglect’, which eventually allowed North Korea to achieve its decades-long goal of completing its nuclear weapon programme. It is true that Israel has long been a de facto nuclear weapon state, and India and Pakistan became declared nuclear weapon states with their 1998 nuclear tests. However, these were not fatal legal challenges to the NPT, since the countries concerned are not NPT signatories. By contrast, North Korea’s nuclear test is a serious challenge if it sets the negative precedent that a NPT signatory can withdraw from the NPT to develop nuclear weapons whenever it feels “seriously threatened”. With such logic, any country can claim they are entitled to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear test and the NPT review conference of 2005, which failed to achieve tangible consensus on pursuing nuclear disarmament, together may cause irrecoverable damage to the NPT regime, unless far more vigorous efforts are made immediately. Firstly, any forthcoming deals with North Korea must be consistent with the principles of the NPT and convey the international community’s determination to de-nuclearize North Korea, even if that makes the deals harder. There are many other countries who are calculating whether the possession or mere development of nuclear weapons may pay off for them as a bargaining card, after North Korea’s example. If a deal resulting from the current six-party talks on Korea (involving Japan, China, the two Koreas, Russia and the USA) deviates too much from the NPT principle in order to make a compromise easier with North Korea, that would risk creating a ‘North Korean model’ to be followed by many other countries.

Secondly, strong measures are needed to restore the NPT regime in crisis. Particularly important is that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) should enter into forces as soon as possible. The CTBT is yet to be ratified by some states with nuclear capability. Notably, out of the five recognized nuclear weapon states (P5), only the USA and China have yet to ratify the treaty. If the USA and China simultaneously ratify the CTBT, Israel and Egypt would follow, and even India and Pakistan would sign and ratify the CTBT.3 If this happens, North Korea and Iran would be the only major states with significant nuclear capability outside the CTBT. This would create enormous legal pressure against the two countries not to further conduct nuclear tests. A CTBT in force would also provide grounds for strong economic sanctions in case a country violates the treaty by testing, which strengthens the NPT regime because of the obstacles it would place in the way of clandestine nuclear development.

Thirdly, with the soaring oil price after the Iraq War, nuclear power is coming back as an alternative energy source. An increasing number of countries are planning to introduce nuclear power technology, which is dual-use by nature. Given that both North Korea and Iran in the past gained nuclear technology under the name of ‘peaceful use’, this new trend is potentially risky for further nuclear proliferation. Far stronger regulations and a comprehensive approach are needed to prevent further proliferation. For instance, the Nuclear Suppliers Group or IAEA may introduce new regulations that any country acquiring nuclear power technology must sign the CTBT and a Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty as part f the package; even China and India, who are importing advanced nuclear power technology, should be subject to this regulation.

Asia: an Epicentre of WMD Proliferation

A. Q. Khan’s network, disclosed in 2004, was a global clandestine syndicate of nuclear-related technology, in which European as well as Asian individuals and entities were involved. It may have been only the tip of the iceberg. In Asia, many weak or failed states tend to get involved in, or provide a base for, human- and drug-trafficking. Poverty, corruption, and the lack of credible institutions to control borders and the flow of goods/people are the basis of trafficking problems, besides the historical legacy. When virtually failed states seek to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as ‘deterrence’ against major powers, WMD proliferation and clandestine business merge to form a proliferation complex. This combination of trafficking problems and WMD proliferation seems to be peculiar to Asia, with Myanmar and North Korea as prominent cases. North Korea is alleged to run drug-trafficking and counterfeiting as state businesses, and its profits are suspected of financing WMD programmes and other military procurement. Against the background of the counterfeiting allegations the United States has imposed monetary sanctions against North Korea since 2005, which seem to have been doing major damage to the North Korean political economy.4 The very fact that the US monetary sanctions provided a reason for North Korea to boycott the six-party talks since November 2005, and again in December 2006, shows the significance of the counterfeiting and money laundering trade for the North Korean regime. There is also an allegation that North Korea is involved in drug trafficking as a state business.5 Myanmar’s relocation of its capital from Yangon to mountainous Pyinmana in 2005 suggests the military junta is adopting a policy of isolationism similar to North Korea, particularly given that the new capital is a “vast fortified compound which contains military headquarters, government ministries, residence… and underground bunkers”.6 Reports suggest increasing military-to-military exchanges (arms sales, military technology transfer, tunnelling expertise, etc.) between Myanmar and North Korea.7 Due to China’s geopolitical and strategic interests in the matter, North Korea and Myanmar are both heavily subsidized by Chinese aid and support. It will be a serious challenge to international security if such a model spreads worldwide, namely the combination of military junta, isolationism, fortification or bunkerization of a capital, and WMD development. Therefore, it is vitally important to solve the complex challenge created by the North Korean nuclear crisis, trafficking, counterfeiting, and human rights problems in a comprehensive, determined and constructive way.

Flash Points in East Asia and Risk of Inter-State Conflicts

In East Asia, there are two major flash points, the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait, where the risk of inter-state war cannot be ruled out. The fact that Korea is still divided means that the ‘Korean Cold War’ (Yoshikazu Sakamoto) has not ended yet; four parties involved in the Korean war – North- and South-Korea, the USA, and China – are legally still in a state of war following the Armistice Treaty of 1953. The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas is the most heavily militarized area in the world, filled with over one million North Korean troops with massive artillery installations and South Korean and US forces with state-of-the-art equipment. Even without a pre-emptive surgical strike by the USA, any insurgency caused by North Korean regime instability following economic strangulation (the ‘Romania scenario’), or North Korean offensive action retaliating against economic sanctions (the ‘Pearl Harbour scenario’), could escalate into a large-scale inter-state war.8 For China, North Korea is a vital strategic buffer zone, and therefore Mao Zedong intervened in the Korean War (1950-53) by sacrificing nearly 400,000 Chinese soldiers’ lives and paying all the war costs for North Korea.9 Therefore, in case of any insurgency on the Korean Peninsula, China would certainly intervene, even if in a discreet way, alongside the involvement of the two Koreas.

The Taiwan Strait is another flash-point, potentially one of the world’s most dangerous spots where a risk of escalation to nuclear warfare cannot be ruled out in the worst case. China deploys about 1,000 short-range and middle-range ballistic missiles in southern China targeting Taiwan and the US forces in Japan (USFJ). Beijing explains those missiles as being for “preventing Taiwan from going independent”, but a surprise attack with missiles is regarded as an effective method for any attempt by Beijing to seizure Taiwan quickly. China’s military budget has shown a rapid and sustained boost in military spending over the decade, with real-terms growth in excess of 10 per cent in most years, resulting in a 165 per cent rise in military expenditure since 1996.10 China purchases large number of advanced weapons, mostly from Russia (China bought 43 per cent of all Russian arms exports in 2005): in terms of the 2001-2005 aggregate imports of major arms, China was ranked the top arms recipient with an import value of 13,343 US million dollars (at 1990 prices), followed by India (9,355 US$ million).11 Besides, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly procuring offensive weapon systems. For instance, the PLA Navy is reportedly procuring a large amphibious assault ship with a large stern helicopter flight deck and dock to accommodate four large air-cushion landing craft, also equipped with air defence and anti-surface weapons for self-defence, which will, once commissioned, significantly improve the PLA Navy’s sealift and power projection capabilities.12 The PLA is also intensifying its preparations for operations against Japan, assuming that Japan would provide logistic support to US forces in the event of US intervention into a cross-Strait conflict. In November 2004, a PLA Navy nuclear submarine intruded into Japanese territorial waters. Since August 2005, suspected Chinese electronic warfare planes frequently violate Japan’s designated air defence zone. Measured by cases in which the Japanese Air Self-Defence Forces have scrambled against Chinese military aircraft, the frequency of air intrusions by the PLA Air Force has tripled from 13 occasions in 2004 to 107 times in 2005.13 In October 2006, a PLA Navy submerged Song-class attack submarine shadowed the Japan-based US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the East China Sea near Okinawa without being detected.14 These operations are alleged to be for collecting military data for anti-submarine operations and electronic warfare to deter US intervention with Japan’s logistic support. This means that the PLA is intensifying its military actions targeted against US-Japanese security cooperation, which provides the only obstacle to China’s ambition for forced reunification with Taiwan. Beijing used to explain its rapid military build-up as ‘deterrence’ against Taiwan’s independence. However, the PLA’s rapid military build-up with advanced weapon systems, recent large scale military exercises with Russia (‘Peace Mission-2005’ in Qingdao with Russia, involving 10,000 PLA troops) and linked with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and repeated violations of Japanese territorial water and designated air defence zone, all suggest that the PLA’s preparations for the use of force against Taiwan are not a bluff but real and determined. In other words, the PLA’s military capability has reached the point of aiming to be able to impose re-unification with Taiwan by force, and not just to deter Taiwan’s independence.

The Rise of China as a Shift in Hegemony

The rise of China is evident, not only in terms of the economy, but also as a soaring military power. Although China’s military forces (particularly its nuclear forces) are still behind US forces in quality and quantity, China’s ongoing military procurement, rapid modernization, and deployment plans suggest that the PLA is destined to challenge US hegemony in due course. China continues to modernize its nuclear arsenals and the PLA Navy is reportedly planning to procure an aircraft carrier. In January 2007, China launched a ballistic missile to destroy one senile weather satellite in space orbit: China’s first experiment with an anti-satellite weapon, following actions taken only by the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Having received favourable treatment in national budgets since the early 1990s,15 the PLA seems to be driven by hyper-ambition and over-confidence to conquer Taiwan and to go further in eventually challenging US hegemony. As Chinese self-confidence grows, super-nationalism and jingoistic opinions are increasingly dominant in Beijing. Certainly the Chinese version of Neo-Conservatism is prevalent, and as one participant of the Session ‘Global Powers, Global Threats’ remarked, ‘Neo-Cons’ in China or Russia never lose power, unlike the American Neo-Cons who lost ground in the Congressional elections of November 2006.

While China’s military procurement and deployment are focused on its priority strategic interests such as Taiwan and the East-/South-China Sea, US overseas forces are dispersed and over-stretched globally after 9.11, rendering East Asia more volatile in terms of force reorganization. In East Asia, the US Forces in Korea (USFK) and US Forces in Japan (USFJ) are undergoing redeployment as a part of the global reorganization of US overseas forces. In October 2004, the US Department of Defence (DoD) announced that it had agreed with South Korea to redeploy 12,500 US troops from Korea, which meant withdrawing one-third of the original 37,000 US troops there.16 The USFJ, approximately 47,000 military personnel (about 47,000 ashore and 12,000 afloat in strength), is also undergoing major realignment. One of the major realignment programs involves US force reductions and relocation to Guam—approximately 8,000 III Marine Expeditionary Force personnel and their approximately 9,000 dependents will relocate from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.17 While the US marine forces in Okinawa are reduced and relocated to Guam, command and control of USFJ and Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) will be upgraded and further integrated at Camp Zama (army) and Yokota Air Base. Although the realignment of USFJ represents a combination of reductions (marine forces in Okinawa) with upgrading (US-Japanese integrated command & control), as well as modernization (missile defence deployment), Beijing may perceive the reorganization of USFK and USFJ in general as a sign of the weakening of the US military presence in East Asia.

China’s latent challenge against US dominance is also reflected in its proactive foreign policy, including such features as active lobbying in Europe and an aggressive natural resource policy prominent in Africa. In Europe, China has been intensively lobbying since 2003 to get the EU arms embargo against it lifted. Advocates of lifting the embargo argue that it is a ‘mere symbol’, a simple text without any detailed provisions on items to be banned. However, if it is not “important”, why has China been lobbying so intensively in the past few years to lift this ‘symbolic’ embargo? This ‘symbol’ is very important in the sense that the embargo was introduced in response to the 1989 Tian’anmen massacre. If the EU lifts the embargo, this means the EU recognizes China as a ‘normal state’ without any human rights abuses, which is an unacceptably wrong message to Beijing. If and when the EU arms embargo is lifted, China will use the logic of this ‘normal state’ to claim further, for instance, to be de-listed from the Wassenaar Agreement’s list of recipients which still restricts China’s access to certain sensitive dual-use technologies. Thus, Beijing’s expectation would be that lifting the EU arms embargo will generally ease China’s access to sensitive dual-use technologies, besides European high-tech weapons which the Chinese would reverse-engineer and indigenize to strengthen its indigenous military R&D infrastructure.

Regarding China’s natural resource policy, Hu Jintao’s African policy is looming large, dynamic and sophisticated. In November 2006, Beijing hosted nearly 50 African leaders at the third Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOAC), marking 50 years of friendship and diplomatic ties. China-Africa trade has reached $42 billion USD in 2005, which made China the third largest trading partner after the European Union and the United States. In the summit, Beijing pledged to double its aid to Africa and provide $5 billion USD in loans and credits over the next three years.18 China’s investment in Africa, mostly for plants and infrastructure for extracting natural resources, is also increasing. China seems to have four agendas in its remarkably fast-growing presence in African politics: 1) to secure raw materials, particularly crude oil and rear metals; 2) to steer United Nations politics through influencing the African Union (AU) which has 53 members; 3) to steer African diplomacy to freeze out Taiwan; and 4) to expand the African market for exporting Chinese products. Regarding raw materials, China is particularly eager to establish firm relationships with African states with rich resources, such as Sudan (oil), Nigeria (oil), Chad (oil), Angola (oil) and Zambia (copper). In the same manner, China’s natural resource-based policy is taking an aggressive form in Central Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. As the Figure shows, the expansion of China’s economic and military power along sea lines of communication (SLOCs) or in geopolitically sensitive areas such as East Asia and Central Asia, implies potential collisions with the USA’s military presence and strategic interests.

A Coalition of Shared Values in Question

While the USA has been preoccupied with the Iraq war, which has consumed massive national resources and exposed the Administration to harsh criticism both inside and outside the USA, China has clearly profited from the political vacuum to gain a freer hand on critical issues such as the North Korean nuclear crisis and natural resources in Africa and Central Asia. China has exploited the worldwide anti-American sentiment to expand its soft power, which is prominent in Hu Jintao’s aggressive foreign policy since 2003. In soft power politics, China would seem to be winning vis-à-vis the USA. There is an argument supporting ‘the rise of China’ as a ‘counter-power against the US unilateralism’, or in the interests of ‘multi-polar world order’ or ‘multilateralism’. Such arguments have so far been met with inaction or apathy in the world community, or a prospect of international anarchy. There is a pitfall, however, in such simplistic calculations of ‘power balance’. In the past the USA also committed the same mistake when it armed Osama Bin Laden to deter the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, or Saddam Hussein to deter the Islamist regime of Iran, out of a simplistic ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ strategy: eventually the Americans only made ‘Frankenstein monsters’ for themselves. Such a fatal mistake could have been avoided at the time only if US policy-makers had asked themselves whether those leaders shared with them any fundamental values such as human rights and democracy. The same inquiry is now addressed to those who advocate the ‘rise of China’. Certainly the USA has committed a series of mistakes in its foreign policy which deserve criticism and scrutiny. However, such criticism should not make us blind to the problematic or destructive activities of powerful non-democracies.


Figure: China’s Global Economic and Military Activities along the SLOCs

Source: A Graphic processed by the author based on a map originally from The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005, Annual Report to Congress, US Department of Defence.

1 “Europe has been the region that annually experienced the lowest number of major armed conflicts, and since 2000 after the conflicts in the Balkans in the early 1990s, the only active conflict in Europe has been that between Russia and Chechnya” (‘Appendix 2A. Patterns of major armed conflicts, 1990-2005’, SIPRI Yearbook 2006, pp. 109-111).

2 North Korea removed IAEA monitoring devices from Yongbyon nuclear power plant in December 2002, withdrew from the NPT in January 2003, announced it had reprocessed nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in October 2003, and declared that it has built up “nuclear weapons for self defence” in February 2005.

3 If China ratifies the CTBT, India has no reason to hesitate over signing and ratifying it; and if India does so, so will Pakistan for whom the nuclear arms race drains too many resources away from other important causes.

4 The United States has imposed sanctions on the Banco Delta Asia in Macau for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting since 2005 (‘US cites Banco Delta Asia for Money laundering, other Crimes’, US State Department, 15 September 2005, accessed at Also see John J. Tkacik, Jr. ‘Is China complicit in North Korean Currency Counterfeiting?’, The Heritage Foundation, 20 April 2006 (

5 Thirty-five percent of methamphetamine seizures in Japan from 1998 to 2002 originated in North Korea, and Japanese police believe that a high percentage of the “Meth” on Japanese streets originates in North Korea. There have been seizures of drugs trafficked to Taiwan in a similar fashion, Large quantities of drugs, expensive even at wholesale prices, are transferred from North Korean state-owned ships - on occasion by men in uniform - to ships provided by Japanese or ethnic Chinese traffickers to be brought surreptitiously to Japan or Taiwan (William Bach, ‘Drugs, Counterfeiting, and Arms Trade: The North Korean Connection’, Testimony Before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Management, the Budget, and International Security, 20 May 2003 (

6 Seth Mydans, ‘A Government on the move to half-built Capital’, International Herald Tribune, 11 November 2005.

7 Bertil Lintner, ‘Myanmar and North Korea share a tunnel vision’, Asia Times, 19 July 2006.

8 For North Korean nuclear crisis scenarios in theory, see Ikegami (forthcoming) ‘North Korean Nuclear Crisis: A Pitfall of Geopolitics and Forgotten Human Rights’, POSCO program working paper, East-West Center.

9 Ryo Hagiwara (1993) Chosen-Senso: Kim Nissei to Macarthur no Inbo [The Korean War: a Conspiracy of Kim Il-Song and Macarthur], Tokyo: Bungei-shunju.

10 ‘Military Expenditure’, SIPRI Yearbook 2006, Oxford University Press, p. 310.

11 ‘Appendix 10A. The volume of transfers of major conventional weapons: by recipients and suppliers, 2001-2005’, SIPRI Yearbook 2006, p. 477.



15 According to China’s official data, China’s military expenditure has grown with a double-digit annual increase in sequence since 1989 (Boei Hakusho [Defence of Japan] 2006,

16 The United States announced plans in 2004 to shift 3,600 troops from South Korea to Iraq, the first time the United States had reduced its armed forces in South Korea since the end of the Cold War. It also reportedly proposed withdrawing up to one-third of the 37,000 US troops in South Korea, and planning to move about 7,000 US troops from their bases near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near the North Korean border to a new military camp well south of Seoul. (

17 ‘United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation’, issued following May 1, 2006 Meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (SCC: involving the Secretaries of the US DoD, State Department, and Japanese Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence Agency/State for Defence).

18 ‘China to double its aid to Africa’, BBC News, 4 November 2006.