Gunboat Globalization: The Intersection of Economics and Security in East Asia

By Feffer, John | Social Justice, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Gunboat Globalization: The Intersection of Economics and Security in East Asia


Feffer, John, Social Justice


IN SEPTEMBER 1999, THE UNITED STATES OFFERED NORTH KOREA A DEAL: DOLLARS for disarmament. In exchange for North Korea freezing its missile development program, the U.S. would lift the economic sanctions that have prevented trade between the two countries for the past 50 years. Shortly before the June 2000 summit between the two Korean leaders, the U.S. finally followed through on its promise to ease sanctions. Despite a nascent detente on the Korean peninsula, however, the U.S. refuses to retire its East Asian containment policy. In other words, although the Clinton administration indicated a willingness to help North Korea enter the global market, the U.S. has refused to remove any of the weapons or troops that currently threaten North Korea.

This combination of militarism and neoliberal engagement exemplifies U.S. relations toward East Asia more generally. [1] The U.S. struggles to maintain the Cold War in Asia on the basis of 100,000 troops, considerable hardware, and sizable contributions from Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. At the same time, particularly in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the U.S. government has consistently pushed for neoliberal reforms that involve the privatization of state assets, the lowering of barriers to trade, and the elimination of restrictions on the transnational movement of capital.

In some cases, U.S. economic and military objectives have overlapped, and the U.S. State Department and the Commerce Department have worked hand in hand. Conventional arms sales, high-tech research programs, and lowered trade barriers have accomplished both objectives of greater market access for U.S. businesses and stronger allied military postures against perceived enemies. Yet globalization and U.S. militarism do not always mix well in East Asia. Certain military imperatives, such as a regional missile defense system, have driven wedges between countries that neoliberals want to unite through free trade. Moreover, certain economic trends, such as the deregulation of financial markets, have weakened some of the very countries that U.S. troops and battleships are pledged to protect.

Herein lies the central problem for U.S. policy toward East Asia: the tension between core military and economic objectives. U.S. military strategy in the region depends on the maintenance of the Cold War, with North Korea, China, or a set of new "threats" substituting for the Soviet Union. U.S. economic strategy, although initially forged in the crucible of the Cold War, is increasingly dependent on breaking down ideological divisions in the region. The U.S. is thus Janus-faced: simultaneously looking backward to the Cold War and forward to the single global capitalist market. In terms of international relations theory, this conflict pits Realists, and their concern with balance of power, against Liberals, and their belief that trade will foster greater interdependence (Buzan and Segal, 1994: 3) [2]

In the 19th century, colonial powers practiced gunboat diplomacy to impose their wills on recalcitrant countries in Asia. In the 21st century, the U.S. has helped to create a very different method of forcing countries to adopt certain economic and political structures. Call it gunboat globalization, where the gunboats are supplied by several countries and the globalization is carried out by a multiplicity of actors. With gunboat globalization, the U.S. is attempting to combine Realist and Liberal tendencies into new forms of multilateralism in East Asia that simultaneously reinforce and obscure U.S. dominance.

Guns Versus Barter

Since World War II, the U.S. government position on security in the Pacific region has been "peace through hegemony." According to the view held by successive presidents, Pentagon officials, and State Department spokespeople -- U.S. troops, bases, and the Seventh Fleet act as a buffer separating the conflict-disposed countries of the region from one another. …

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