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Koh: U.S., China, Japan hold keys to continued security in East Asia

STANFORD -- For the first time in 50 years, the guns are silent in the Asia Pacific region, Singapore's Ambassador Tommy T.B. Koh said at the second of three Stanford lectures.

"The region is at peace," Koh told about 250 people Wednesday, April 12. "This remarkable state of affairs would have been inconceivable a few years ago; it stands in happy contrast to the situations in parts of Africa, Europe and elsewhere, where the end of the Cold War has not brought peace but has brought a new cycle of turbulence and violence."

In the Asia Pacific region, he noted, with the exception of North Korea and the lack of normal relations between the United States and Vietnam, "all the countries and economies enjoy close and cooperative relations with one another" and relations among the four great powers of the region -- the United States, Russia, China and Japan -- are, "for the time being, reasonably good."

"The prospects for peace in the Asia Pacific [region] have never been better," Koh said. But, "the big question is whether this present situation will endure; there are a number of uncertainties."

Koh, ambassador-at-large for the Foreign Ministry of Singapore, is in residence through May at the Institute for International Studies as the Arthur and Frank Payne Lecturer in Global Community and Its Challenges.

Possible obstacles to continued peace

"The rosy picture I have painted is based upon a favorable environment in the region," Koh said. "Will the economies of the region be able to sustain their current high rates of growth, and will the international trading system remain relatively open or turn inward and protectionist?"

He said that rapid growth is often followed by internal turmoil, and a number of Asian nations may be at risk in this area.

A particular concern for many Asians, especially those from countries that relate well to the West, such as Singapore, is uncertainty over the continued security role of the United States in the region. At the same time, some countries are concerned over China's rising prosperity, Koh said.

Likewise, there is some concern over the future role played by Japan, Koh said, because the economic superpower may choose to develop into an independent military superpower rather than remain a strong U.S. ally.

North Korea remains a serious threat, he added, extrapolating that a nuclear-armed North Korea might prompt South Korea and Japan to equal that capability.

Even if Korea reunites, Koh said, "there is uncertainty over future relations between Japan and a unified Korea; this is a relationship which is burdened by history." Japan, he said, has always viewed Korea as a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan."

The paramount issue, he said, is "uncertainty about the future of the triangular relationships among the United States, Japan and China."

Optimistic scenario

While cautioning his audience that he was not predicting what would happen in the Asia Pacific region, Koh did offer two detailed scenarios, one based on optimism, the other a worst-case scenario.

Peace would likely prevail, he said, if the following things occur:

  • The current favorable economic climate continues. "There is a close nexus between economics and politics," he said.
  • The United States retains a credible military presence in the region and continues to play the role of "balancer and stabilizer," and Japan remains allied to the United States rather than increases its military capabilities. Koh also said Japan needs to take a stronger role in multilateral organizations.

"Until Japan plays such a role in world affairs, its claim for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council lacks credibility," he said.

  • The modernization of China is supported by its neighbors and succeeds without causing internal political turmoil. For this to happen, however, Koh said, "China must learn to become a good global citizen," both in economic and social terms.
  • North Korea gives up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, and North and South Korea reunite -- carefully and gradually, to avoid "the heavy price West Germany had to pay in absorbing East Germany."
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan decrease as the two become more economically and socially interdependent.
  • The six claimants to the Spratly Islands -- China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei -- agree to put aside their conflicting territorial claims.
  • Organizations such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) continue to flourish and address relevant regional issues.

Three nations play pivotal roles in future

Koh also outlined some possible developments that have the potential to shatter the peace in the region.

If the post-Cold War American public forces its politicians to turn neo-isolationist and reduce military presence in the region, Koh said, Japan could feel compelled to re-arm and "become a complete superpower, including the possession of nuclear weapons. This sets off alarm bells in China, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia."

Then, relations between China and Japan could sour as the two countries "compete to fill the vacuum" created by the withdrawal of the United States. "As a result, the region becomes divided into two antagonistic camps," he said.

No matter what the United States and Japan do, China could still become a major threat to the region -- whether its modernization succeeds or fails.

In the former case, China becomes a "complete superpower," Koh said, and may not be "satisfied with the status quo." In the latter case, China may be thrown into a state of chaos, with "millions of Chinese fleeing China to seek refuge in neighboring countries."

Koh also said it was "not too far-fetched" to consider that the United States may at some point see China or Japan -- or both -- as serious threats to American national interests, in which case it might "divide the Pacific right down the middle into two antagonistic blocks."

Among the many things that Koh suggested could avert this situation was for the United States to "avoid making Japan the scapegoat for its home-grown problems. [Stanford economist] Paul Krugman is right when he said that if a huge earthquake caused Japan to sink below the sea, the United States would still be plagued by a low savings and investment rate, a budget deficit, inadequate public education, insufficient infrastructure and low productivity growth in services."

Both the United States and Japan, he said, should "engage" China as it modernizes, "to bring her into the family of nations and into all the important international organizations."

"The best scenario is one in which the United States, Japan and China cooperate to find a balance of power in the Asia Pacific" region.

"The Asia Pacific region stands at the threshold of a new era that is without precedent in history," Koh said. "The prospects of the region for peace and prosperity have never been more propitious -- we must not blow this opportunity.

"We must also avoid dividing the Eastern from the Western rims of the Pacific," Koh said. "Such a division would, in any event, make no sense since both of our economic and security linkages are trans-Pacific in nature."

Koh has held a number of high-ranking positions in the government of Singapore, including ambassador to the United Nations and to the United States. A professor who was dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Singapore during the 1970s, he also is director of the Institute of Policy Studies and chairman of the National Arts Council in Singapore.

Koh will address U.S.-East Asian relations in the context of culture in his third and final lecture at 5 p.m. Wednesday May 3, in the Oak Room of Tresidder Union.



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