Paris, Tuesday, August 24, 1999

War Prospects in Asia Are Both Remote and Scary

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune

LONDON - North Korean missiles, China-Taiwan saber-rattling, India-Pakistan tension - at first glance it can appear that Asian security is under imminent threat of major conflict. What we are seeing is a new style of Asian conflict in which diplomatic tensions can run high but the threshold of real war is also high.

These conflicts have high thresholds in part because they take place in environments with nuclear weapons. If the threshold of conflict is indeed reached, the stakes could not be higher.

In the crisis of 1994 over North Korea's suspected program to develop nuclear weapons, the United States talked of mobilizing forces for offensive operations against the facilities, but its Japanese and South Korean allies balked at the use of force. The crisis led to the creation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, KEDO, and strengthening of U.S.-Japanese security relations. War remained a distant thunder.

In the current Korean standoff, even if Pyongyang launches another long-range ballistic missile, and despite the presence of formidable U.S. and allied forces in the immediate region, there will be no use of force against North Korea. Military power is simply not effective in this sort of conflict, although neither apparently is diplomacy or economic incentives.

Yet there are significant consequences, whether or not a missile is launched. The United States is drawing closer to its allies in Japan and South Korea. Theater missile defense, to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, becomes a more realistic prospect. The KEDO project is put at risk. And China finds itself a diplomatic loser, as U.S. allies perceive that it is not doing enough to curb North Korea.

Similar logic is at work in the China-Taiwan standoff. There is much talk of a military option against Taiwan, but, as in the 1996 crisis, it is unlikely to be anything effective. Missiles fired into empty water in 1996 were met by the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups. No real shots were fired. The ''war'' was merely electronic and diplomatic.

But the strategic consequences were important. China was perceived as a regional bully, and U.S. allies huddled closer for protection. Singapore and the Philippines in Southeast Asia, and Japan in Northeast Asia, demonstrably welcomed closer military relations with the United States. All this could have effect in a real war.

Still, we are far from shots being fired in earnest.

As in 1996, we now could be in for more psychological warfare and virtual battlefields. The fact that the tension surrounding Taiwan takes place primarily at sea and in the air reinforces the sense of theater. But precisely because China is so frustrated by its inability to impose its will on Taiwan, the military stakes are high.

Senior Chinese officials speak of engaging the United States in World War III if that is what it takes to regain Taiwan. At some point, frustrated Chinese nationalists may well be so foolish as to seriously contemplate such action.

Even in the India-Pakistan relationship, similar strategic trends are at work. While India suffered several hundred dead in the recent skirmishes along the Line of Control in Kashmir, the fighting did not escalate into full-scale war.

Indian and Pakistani rhetoric, like that in the other two conflicts, often confuses people into believing that we are on the brink of major war. When India shot down a Pakistani reconnaissance aircraft there was another bout of war fever.

In all three cases, a major cause for keeping conflict short of war was the presence of nuclear weapons, or the fear that they may exist or soon exist in the case of North Korea. Conventional wisdom suggested, especially in the India-Pakistan tension, that nuclear weapons made the conflict worse, but that has not been the case - so far.

The real risks lie elsewhere, primarily in domestic political uncertainties that could lead to irrational calculations about the use of war. It is then that the nuclear risks make all three of these conflicts so dangerous.

A collapse in North Korea, rabid nationalism in Beijing, independence-driven hotheads in Taiwan or a collapsing Pakistani government are the kinds of forces that can take these countries across the high thresholds of war.

The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.