Asia's dangerous flash points

As disputes among Pacific neighbors threaten to spread, US's Albright and Cohen visit to help cool off the region.

Security tensions are rising in East Asia - the same neighborhood that brought you Vietnam, Korea, and the Pacific theater of World War II.

North Korea is apparently preparing to test another missile, China and Taiwan are squabbling anew, and push is coming to shove over a disputed group of islands in the South China Sea - three hot spots that could easily draw in the US and other countries.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen are visiting Asia this week to address these matters. Recently President Clinton personally encouraged India and Pakistan, the two newest members of the nuclear-weapons club, to back away from a violent clash along their border.

"By any measure, tensions are up," says Richard Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense and longtime Asia-watcher.

The divided Korean peninsula is in some ways a cold-war leftover, but today's disputes aren't part of any grand global conflict. These are fights over sovereignty - over who will rule what - that have stumped leaders and diplomats for decades.

The conflicts percolating in East Asia today, adds MIT political scientist Richard Samuels, "are among the most intractable problems in world affairs." If any of them get out of hand, the effects will be quickly felt outside the region. An act of Congress says the US will consider "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means" a matter of "grave concern."

In March 1996, the last time China acted belligerently toward the island it calls a renegade province, Mr. Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to patrol seas near Taiwan as a show of force.

The US, which stations some 37,000 troops in South Korea to help deter North Korea from an attack, has been leading efforts to discourage the reclusive communist state from developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. And the US has long kept an eye on the disputed Spratly Islands, which lie atop what some experts say are lucrative oil and mineral deposits under the South China Sea. Brunei, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim all or part of the islands.

In 1995 China began construction on a Spratly reef that is well inside the Philippines's 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" and more than 1,000 miles from the Chinese coast. China has ignored Philippine protests, and other countries have not rallied to the Philippine cause, despite the satellite dishes and antiaircraft guns on what China calls "fishermen's structures." On July 19 a Chinese fishing boat sank after an encounter with a Philippine naval vessel - a clash that China protested and that the Philippines called accidental. "No one's giving them any help on [the] reef; I think they wanted to make a statement," says Professor Samuels.

Apparently, the message was received. Yesterday, Ms. Albright said in Singapore that the US and other countries "cannot simply sit on the sidelines and watch." She encouraged a regional security forum in which she was participating to take up the issue even though China insists that it will discuss the Spratlys only on a one-on-one basis with other claimants. "The stakes are too high to permit a cycle to emerge in which each incident leads to another with potentially greater risks and graver consequences," Albright said.

Ever since July 9, when Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui indicated that relations between his government and China should be "state to state," people have wondered how strongly the authorities in Beijing would react. So far, the response has been limited to harsh criticism and diplomatic snubs. Mr. Lee's statement seems at odds with the idea of "one China," which Beijing insists that Taiwan respect. China maintains its right to use force to prevent a splintering of China - which is how Chinese officials see Taiwanese moves toward independence. In the past, China has used war games and missile launches to register displeasure.

The US also respects the "one China" policy - as its officials have explained to Taiwan and China recently - but the situation is delicate, in part because Taiwan has become increasingly democratic. "We claim to go to war to protect human rights and self-determination," observes Samuels, referring to the US-led NATO attack in defense of Kosovo. "Will we do that for Taiwan? It's a tough one."

North Korea, long known for unpredictable and diplomatically confusing actions, seems on the verge of another. Reports citing US intelligence sources say the country is preparing to test-launch a long-range missile in the coming weeks.

If the launch takes place, it would be a thumb in the eye of the US, South Korea, and other countries that have been trying to work with North Korea.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has pursued a politically costly "sunshine policy" toward North Korea - and a missile launch would hurt his efforts to maintain the relative openness he has achieved.

At the same time, Mr. Kim has taken steps to expand South Korea's own missile program, raising fears of an arms race that could further delay peaceful reunification on the peninsula.

Japan, already upset about a test launch last August, would be hard pressed to come up with a response that did not alienate hundreds of thousands of Koreans who live in Japan but maintain ties with North Korea.

And the Clinton administration would have a harder time dealing with its critics. "It's a tremendous irony that the most powerful nations of the world are busy trying to coddle the least reputable nation and prolonging the regime of that country," says Mr. Armitage, referring to North Korea.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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