HONG KONG — THE United States has fought two wars on the flanks of China since the end of World War II. Earlier this month President Clinton ordered two aircraft carriers and their escorts to waters near Taiwan, one of the largest concentrations of US naval forces in Asia since the Vietnam War.
Before the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the hot spot was North Korea, seemingly bent on building atomic weapons. That confrontation was defused when the reclusive Communist state was essentially bought off with a promise of help in building two nuclear-power plants, at a cost to Japan, South Korea, and the US of $4 billion.
Yet some analysts still worry that starvation might cause North Korea's insecure leader Kim Jong Il to make a desperate plunge into South Korea where 37,000 US troops are stationed.
The security in a region of the world better known for its robust economies than its strong armies - and where America has many vital interests - is more fragile than many people have imagined.
According to experts, five unresolved issues are feeding concerns over Asia:
1. What are China's intentions?
When Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visited Beijing last May, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen assured him that "China will never threaten or invade other countries." Asian leaders would like to believe that is true. The recent bullying of Taiwan was seen by them, officially at least, as an internal matter and not evidence of generalized Chinese aggression.
But there is a pervasive uneasiness among Asian leaders about what China will do when its military capabilities catch up with its bright economic prospects. The possibility that China might go in another direction, that it might disintegrate into impoverished warring regions after the death of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, is considered even more destabilizing.
This uncertainty about China's future is partly rooted in the difficulty outsiders have in penetrating the mysteries of China's military: its defense posture, weapons acquisitions, force levels, and intentions. There is no commonly agreed figure for the annual defense budget. Estimates range from $7.5 billion (Chinese government) to $50 billion (US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency). To answer such criticisms, China issued its first defense "white paper" last November. Critics called it short on specifics but at least a step in the right direction.
China has cut its armed forces from more than 4 million troops in 1987 to 2.9 million today, and planned reductions should reduce it to 2.5 million. At the same time, it has been acquiring more modern weapons from Russia, including 26 Su-27 fighter-bombers, T-72 main battle tanks, and two Kilo-class attack submarines - with more on order. Russian President Boris Yeltsin plans to visit Beijing in April, when a deal will be signed to sell more fighters to China and transfer the technology to build them.
"The recent military exercises off Taiwan showed the People's Liberation Army operating on a scale we haven't seen in 15 years," says Tai Ming Cheung, an analyst for Kim Eng Securities in Hong Kong and a specialist in China's military. "The Chinese are beginning to show the capability of projecting power beyond their shores."
2. Conflicting territorial claims
Significantly, many of China's newest weapons are not deployed opposite Taiwan but in southern Guangdong Province, where they are ideally positioned to assert Beijing's interests and claims in the South China Sea, which is still shown as sovereign Chinese territory on official maps. The Chinese have built a runway large enough to handle Su-27s on Woody Island, a small atoll seized from Vietnam in 1975.
A year ago, Beijing sent shock waves through Southeast Asia when it built an installation, presumably military, on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands group, which is claimed either in total or part by five Asian countries and Taiwan. The Philippines, which claims Mischief Reef, has been somewhat mollified by Beijing's willingness to negotiate the claim rather than simply assert it.
China also shares a long frontier along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers with the Russian Federation, where nearly 30 years ago the two sides fought a sharp skirmish along the Ussuri River.
Relations are much improved, and both sides have been patiently resolving disputed sections along their 4,500-mile common frontier. It means that Chinese troops that have for years been pinned down in interior areas of northern and western China to meet the Russian threat can be transferred to the southeast coastline.
3. An Asian arms race?
Every Southeast Asian nation except the Philippines is actively seeking to buy new arms. Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to order a light aircraft carrier, and Indonesia recently bought the entire former East German Navy. Defense budgets are steadily moving upward, even though they remain fairly constant when compared to GNPs.
Asian countries have lucrative offshore oil, gas, and fisheries to protect. Japan plans to assert its rights to fisheries 200 miles in the Sea of Japan. Smack in the middle is a disputed atoll called Takeshima in Japan and Tokdo in South Korea. It was the subject of recent angry words between the two countries.
But while frigates and fast patrol boats are good for chasing pirates and poachers, Asian countries are also acquiring attack submarines. By 2010 Southeast Asian countries may operate as many as 20 of them. Among those interested are Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Singapore recently bought a training sub from Sweden.
Concerns about China lurk behind these acquisitions, but there are still inter-regional irritants dating back to the 1960s confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia still worries about the latent claim to its Borneo state of Sabah by the Philippines. And Singapore's constant unspoken worry is being a small Chinese state in a Malay sea.
4. A security vacuum
Adding to Asia's insecurities is the lack of any real structure for resolving conflicts. The region has what former Secretary of State James Baker once described as a "hub and spoke" arrangement left over from the cold war. The US is the hub linked by defense treaties to five "spokes": Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia/New Zealand.
The first modest step toward collective security was taken when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made a decision nearly three years ago to address regional security. ASEAN brings together for annual deliberations its seven members plus partners such as the US, Russia, and China. Much is made of the security forum's "confidence-building" attributes. But it is new, untested, and often dismissed as an ineffective talk shop, especially by critics in the West.
At least it represents the beginning of collective security in Southeast Asia. The prospects for peace in Northeast Asia (the Koreas and Japan) would be much less certain without the US military presence because of the vast numbers of troops concentrated there and North Korea's unpredictability. There are more Koreans (1.7 million) in the armed forces of the North and South than Americans or Russians (each about 1.5 million).
The crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been only temporarily eased, not solved, by outside aid in the form of the two civilian nuclear plants and $2 million in food aid donated by Washington earlier this year. North Korea has agreed to freeze its nuclear program, not dismantle it. American intelligence continues to report a buildup of conventional arms along the demilitarized zone, where there are already some 9,000 artillery pieces in place aimed toward Seoul, where a quarter of South Koreans live.
The commander of US forces in South Korea, Gen. Gary Luck, testified before a House of Representatives committee on March 6 that a crisis in Korea was only a matter of time. "We worry that, in a very short period, North Korea will either collapse or take aggressive actions against the South in a desperate attempt to divert attention from its internal situation," he said.
5. How long will US stay engaged?
Almost every Asian leader prefers to see American troops stay in Asia. But the people in the host countries are getting restless. Five years ago, rising nationalism is the Philippines forced the closing of a huge naval and air base in the Philippines. Now there are similar pressures rising in Japan and South Korea.
Following the arrest in Okinawa of three US servicemen for the rape of a 12-year-old girl last October, 40 percent of Japanese polled favored abolishing the US-Japan security treaty, up from 28 percent only two months earlier. Sentiments for closing the bases are, naturally, much higher in Okinawa, where the bulk of the American troops are based. Japanese taxpayers are beginning to tire of the cost of paying for the bases at a cost of $139,000 per GI.
When he visits Tokyo in April, President Clinton and Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the security treaty. The US will try to ease Okinawan concerns by consolidating some bases but will not cut the total force levels below the 100,000 now stationed in Japan and South Korea.
As Washington sees it, anything below this nice round number may be interpreted in Asia as the start of a steady retreat from the region. With China on the rise, that's the last thing anyone here wants to see.