While the spotlight shines on blood, bombs, and freedom in the cradle of Western civilization, uneasy happenings await in the wings — stage right, eastward, where the Garden of Eden holds no cultural significance, and the scenery is already arranged for the alien drama of Asia, the future’s vast setting for the final act of the Cold War.
When Secretary of State Rice paid a visit to the world’s last militarized Cold War frontier, the Bush administration made clear that the status quo in Korea, as in the Middle East, was unacceptable. America has succeeded in convincing Russia, Japan, South Korea, and even China that a nuclear North Korea is to be prevented, and every lesson of political science would suggest that such a coalition of hard and soft power would ultimately assure the outcome desired by its participants. Maybe — in isolation. But the low-intensity Korean crisis will continue to be impacted by less stable Asian dynamics that can’t be isolated or managed the way Kim Il-Jong’s regime can be.
Among the region’s other sources of instability, Formosa is foremost. It is inconceivable to China and Taiwan that they can carry on their status quo postures ad infinitum — despite the wild success of their having done so for decades. The rest of the world, including Taiwan’s strongest supporters, are wholly content to see the island kept in legal limbo: no United Nations membership, no declared independence, no war. And it is understood that Communist China will fight to stop Taiwan from crossing the bridge of no return into full and formal sovereignty.
The old-style sovereign prerogative of China is recognized in South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, whose governments have declared that their mutual-assistance treaties with America do not cover the contingency of Taiwan. The defense of Taiwan would be the sine qua non of American unilateralism, a bitter pill the American public seems unprepared to swallow. Only Japan, Taiwan’s former imperial master, has publicly pledged its support for the U.S. guarantee.
At precisely this moment Japan is poised to reenter the global club of great powers — but it does so under strain. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to publicly honor the Japanese war dead; Japanese textbooks continue to downplay the wretched legacy of the Rising Sun. As Japan antagonizes its neighbors they react in kind: North Korean intransigence continues over the fate of the Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and '80s; China sends its submarines, for the first time, into Japanese waters. The mix is volatile.
Now add the U.S. declaration that Japan deserves its place at the table as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. As the world’s second largest economy, Japan matters; as one of the planet’s oldest, most sophisticated, and historically powerful nations — uniquely in possession of a constitution that bans a real army — Japan is headed for a date with destiny. It seems only a matter of time before the Japanese Question, along with the Korean and the Chinese, fall into line as Cold War relics. But whether they fall or are pushed, and with what consequence, will to a large extent be determined by the billion people who officially still practice Communism and have become a dynamo, among them 22 million Chinese who have petitioned by Internet to keep Japan off the Security Council.
China is coming of age. Beijing can sink the American economy by dumping its T-bills and destroy the world computer market by invading Taiwan, which manufactures some two-thirds of all CPU motherboards. Although these powers bring prohibitive liabilities, their mere possession puts China in an unprecedented position of strength. And in China, where it has been de facto state policy not to create women, the inevitable impact of the male prejudice on the “one family, one child” mantra is coming into being — millions and millions of poor, young bachelors. The Wall Street Journal has reported that China is now carrying out a broad-based and deliberate plan to establish the relationships in Africa that it opted out of a millennium ago. It had better come up with something. Males with no future are prone, as in Africa itself, either to kill each other or go looking beyond their borders.
GEOPOLITICAL POWER ABHORS a vacuum. The Asian “Tigers” that looked so hot in the 1990s seem lukewarm a decade later; not one is even a regional power. More significantly, Australia is establishing itself as an antipodal Greenland compared to the bonanza of people and money in the Asian metropolises. A government initiative paying over Aust. $2000 to repeat mothers has met with the sort of success that underscores the necessity of the program itself. Australia won’t go out of business, but in relevance and power its days are numbered and diminishing fast.
The regional leverage that America’s close relationship with Australia provides will follow suit. Three days into April, Australia and Indonesia signed an historic “comprehensive partnership,” dubbed by Indonesian President Yudhoyono the “most significant landmark” in his country’s relations with the Anglo-American continent to his south. Though the agreement does not yet include a security pact, the trend is clear enough: Indonesia, with its vast population, will increasingly dominate modest Australia’s geopolitical radar screen. To date, Canberra has earmarked Aust. $1 billion to Indonesia’s tsunami recovery effort — charity, certainly, but not just charity.
The global strategic redeployment of the United States Armed Forces will affect Australia’s relevance, too, probably serving to heighten its profile while paradoxically complicating and weakening its favorable regional relationship with the U.S. War in Taiwan or no, Asian populations are weary of 50-year-old American military bases. Yesterday’s Philippines are today’s Okinawa, and today’s Okinawa is the South Korea of tomorrow where young generations already have begun to agitate for American withdrawal.
And when America goes looking elsewhere, as it must, for more obliging hosts, it will not find the pliable local governments of the late twentieth century. Nor will skittish Asian nations permit American forces to stage through their territory on route to Taiwan. The land and resource requirements of U.S. forward deployments in the Pacific can only be satisfied by Australia — a destination which may well stoke the adversarial racial and cultural undertones that have done so much to undermine American strategy in the Middle East.
BUT THE BLEAKEST ethnopolitical site is the Russian Far East. Alone, the Russian-Chinese population disparity is enough to foreshadow a Mexican border-style conflict over immigration and resources. While the collapse of Soviet-era industrialism, the lack of new economic opportunity, and the unfettered impact of HIV/AIDS make a Siberian winter worse, next door China faces none of those handicaps. While the hinterland shrivels, the Kremlin forges ahead with a pro-China gamble. Commonwealth-2005, the first joint military exercise between the two countries, will take place this fall, and is ostensibly geared toward combating a future terrorist threat.
The Chinese insisted that the Commonwealth-2005 exercise, once planned for China’s eastern reaches, where Russia could work out of its airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, be shifted to the Yellow Sea. Russia countered by demanding a second, northerly shift, further afield from Taiwan, on the Shangdong peninsula. But the Chinese altered the format again, incorporating amphibious landings into the “anti-terror” exercise. It was Russia that proposed the collaboration, but China that will reap the rewards. China can afford the war materiel Russia is desperate to sell. Russian relations with Japan, Taiwan, and the United States will suffer as Chinese relations maintain their economic security. And what once seemed like a sure way of both bolstering and projecting Russian power — in a future area of competition with its new military partner — now has been transformed into a way to flex Chinese muscle, under cloak of the anti-terror security imperative.
There are no current solutions on the table for any of the latent or blatant crises facing East Asia and all its implicated countries. The central source of instability is China, but Japan’s debut at the Security Council and the implosion of North Korea will grab headlines, while Taiwan simmers and Russia and Australia fade beside the vital center they bookend. The attention of private citizens and policymakers — with all justification — is trained on the Middle Eastern arc of instability and its largely Muslim population. But billions to the east (many also Muslim) harbor powerful desires in significant nations where unfinished business is on the agenda. It will not be tabled. There is no pause button. The future in Asia will be here before we know it, and maybe it already is.
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