Six of the 10 largest armies in the world are in Asia. China's, the world's largest standing army, is vigorously modernizing its weapons, long-range and short-range. China's President Jiang Zemin, although commander in chief, never served in uniform. And so, like Bill Clinton, he shows signs of feeling a need to prove himself a faithful supporter of his military.
And that's only the geographic center of a problem that calls for new steps to prevent arms races and actual conflicts from breaking out around China's perimeter.
In Asia's east, the US is pressing Japan to update its strategic defenses after half a century of keeping its armed forces inoffensive (literally) and non-nuclear. Uncle Sam-san's goad to Tokyo: Watch out for North Korea's intermediate range Rodong missiles that can potentially hit all of Japan except eastern Hokkaido.
To the southeast, Indonesia has been trying to upgrade its air force and missile defenses. Vietnam worries about fending off China, mindful of their 1979 border war and current maneuvers over offshore oil. And the US recently agreed to sell Thailand its most advanced air-to-air missile, even though Thailand faces no outside threat. That prompted neighbor Malaysia to shop for its own missiles.
To the west, scene of three India-Pakistan wars and one India-China war, there is a glimmer of hope. India's new prime minister, although already beset by political wrangles, appears driven to carry on peace explorations with Pakistan.
The need to control all these regional arms races has become more urgent. One reason: implied missile blackmail from North Korea relayed by high-ranking defector Hwang Jang Yop. Another: the possibility that China might again bully Taiwan or other neighbors with military exercises. A third: Washington's soon to be completed review of its defenses going into the next century.
That review is almost certain to push for a new generation of smart weapons, paid for by reductions in troop strength. The former would mean more "slightly used" weapons to be sold. The latter might mean reducing the US troop "shield" in East Asia below the key 100,000 level. It may seem unlikely that South Korea and Japan would follow Manila and eject US bases. But it would be prudent for the US to encourage its Asian friends and China to establish regular meetings of their defense chiefs with an eye to finding a way to prevent arms races. And also to establish systems for keeping disputes from getting out of hand.
As part of encouraging quiet Asian defense summits, Washington could pledge itself to restraining its own weapons-sales tendencies. As East Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson argues, Uncle Sam can't play both arsonist and fire department - at least not convincingly.