New role for America
The United States can assist in Northeast Asia to bring peace and stability, but increasingly the people of this region, even if they do not say it explicitly, feel that the U.S. perceives regional division and discord as advancing its own interests, rather than cooperation and reconciliation.
It is essential that the U.S. erase that negative perception and affirm that it can play a vital role in East Asia as a committed Pacific nation. But unless we fundamentally redefine our mission, we risk losing our position of authority in Asia permanently.
My father told me as a boy, “Never do the same job for more than one year.” He did not mean you should quit your job every year! What he meant was that although you may have the same title in the same organization year after year, you must constantly innovate, endlessly transform how you work and modify your approach to new issues and circumstances.
That advice is most pertinent to the role of the U.S. in Northeast Asia. We need a fundamental transformation now.
Above all, the U.S. should take the lead in working together with Korea, China and Japan to come up with a comprehensive, long-term strategy to address the threat of climate change. The spreading deserts in Northern China threaten to destroy the region’s ecosystem. The risk caused by dust and fine particles has reached crisis levels and will require a complete restructuring of our economies and our thinking. The U.S. should play a central role in the debate and the implementation of solutions.
In the case of North Korea, the threat is increasingly a result of the spread of deserts in that nation, and not its nuclear program. If we do not stabilize the land usage in North Korea and protect its topsoil, we may create a crisis on the peninsula that will last for five hundred years and leave our great grandchildren wondering how we could have been so blind.
The U.S. military has already launched the ambitious Spiders or “Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security” program to create the next generation of energy efficiency and ensure effective use of renewable energy sources. The U.S. military has the expertise and the economies of scale to transform the energy infrastructure in East Asia to make it highly efficient and non-polluting.
As we restructure security concerns, the U.S. military can increasingly play this positive role in the region, and thereby the military’s role can be transformed from a defender of outdated security technologies from the Cold War to a leader in promoting innovations aimed at response to climate change. Those innovations can be developed through alliances for research and implementation with the nations of East Asia.
Arms control is another field in which the U.S. can play a positive role. If we look back at the European case, it is clear that a critical factor in setting the stage for the European Union and economic integration was the engagement of the U.S. in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union, which set clear limitations on the arms build-up and opened the way for a more rational relationship. Starting in 1969, the two superpowers opened negotiations on nuclear forces in Europe that changed the relationship.
There is no such agreement in place for arms control in Northeast Asia and consequently rocketing military spending in the region, led by the U.S., has been spilling over into Southeast Asia and Central Asia. We need to implement such an agreement and thereby transform the U.S. from a peddler of weapons to a partner for negotiated agreements on security in the region.
That can only be achieved through long-term discussions between institutions at every level that the U.S. should support. Northeast Asia deserves a comprehensive arms control regime that covers both strategic and conventional weapons. The process of discussing such a possible treaty can do much to encourage trust between nations.
If the U.S. can play the central role in terms of limiting its own spending on arms in the region, and encouraging other nations to do so as well, we could set the stage for a Pacific pivot in which the focus falls on finding new partners for cooperation, and not some misguided attempt to bring back the Cold War.
Moreover, the emergence of transformative technologies such as drones will require entirely new approaches to arms control that must be innovative. The U.S. should work with Korea, China and Japan to set up new standards for the usage of drones in the region that will limit the impact of this game-changing dual-use technology.
Finally, any serious U.S. initiative in Northeast Asia must take China as a partner. China is not a country that we can label as a threat. China represents one out of five humans living on this earth. We must recognize China as a diverse nation that includes many deeply committed to building a better world, and we must join with China in setting forth a century-long plan for creating a new civilization that is appropriate to the true threats of our age.
Broad engagement with East Asia, articulated through a shift to genuine concern about climate change and arms control will not be seen as a sign of American weakness, but rather will be interpreted as an indication of a new potential for American leadership.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
By Emanuel Pastreich