Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International
Saturday, February 14, 1998
East Asia Would Do Well to Help America in Gulf
By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
TOKYO - As the United States and its closest allies close
ranks on the verge of another major crisis in the Gulf, East Asian countries
are standing aside. But unlike their stance during the Gulf War in 1991,
many East Asians this time are not so much sitting on the fence as sitting
on the opposite side of the fence from the United States and its Western
At least in 1991 a number of Asian states, including Japan, provided
financial support for the allied operation in the Gulf. This time, Australia
is the only country in the region to offer a military contribution, though
Japan on Friday backed the United States in its standoff with Iraq. The
other East Asian nations closest to the United States - South Korea and
Singapore - are perched on the fence, offering only guarded sympathy.
There are various explanations for the tendency of East Asians
to be unsupportive or downright hostile to Western objectives. The starting
point is a long-standing reluctance to join collective security operations
of any sort and to see defense in narrow nationalistic terms.
Perhaps the most understandable explanation is that East Asia's
economic crisis looms large and makes governments in the region less concerned
about becoming net contributors to the maintenance of international order.
Some, such as South Korea, might argue that they are now too poor to afford
involvement in distant military engagements.
Of course, many East Asians in Malaysia and elsewhere will take
this opportunity to express their pent-up resentment of what they see as
Western bullying during the worst of the recent economic crisis.
The clear opposition of China, the region's military power, to
action in the Gulf also certainly encourages East Asians to duck for cover.
Some in East Asia will take comfort in the relatively lower level
of support the United States has found in Europe, even though all the major
European players, except France, have expressed varying degrees of backing
for the U.S.-led military buildup.
After the successful expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, many
East Asian officials quietly acknowledged that they had been wrong to sit
on the fence. They risk making a similar mistake this time, whether the
U.S.-British strikes are successful or not. East Asia is a region that
depends, however tacitly, on an American commitment to regional order.
Whether the challenge is deterring China from attacking Taiwan, keeping
North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons or attacking South Korea, or
preventing serious conflict in the South China Sea, it is the United States
that provides stability and order.
The firmness of the U.S. response in the Gulf reflects a similar
interest in defending international order and the authority of UN resolutions,
and in minimizing the risk that weapons of mass destruction will spread.
If the United States feels that it must do all this on its own
with minimal support from allies and friends, it will soon tire of the
task. U.S. isolationist tendencies will strengthen.
A United States that moves toward isolation must be a worry for
many East Asian countries that not only rely on America for order in their
own region but expect Washington to organize the rescue of East Asian economies.
East Asia's myopia on this link between economics and security
is part of the region's well-known tendency to pretend to see little need
for a balance of power and to rely heavily on economic growth to maintain
stability. Yet repeating this mantra now seems unhelpful as economic woes
in the region lead to social unrest and political change.
East Asians should reflect on how matters will appear afterward.
If Saddam Hussein capitulates and allows UN weapons inspectors back into
Iraq, the United States will note, as it did in 1991, that its allies were
all in Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Americans (and Europeans) will also remember that East Asia's
economic crisis in 1997-1998 showed that they rely far less than they thought
on economic ties with Asia and that trans-Atlantic relations are of primary
If the military engagement fails, and those states with nuclear,
chemical and biological weapons are freer to build their arsenals, the
United States will consider even more carefully who its real friends are.
Either way, the winners will not be East Asians.
The writer is director of studies at the International Institute
for Strategic Studies, in London. He contributed this comment to the Herald