1 OCTOBER 1983, Page 7

Apocalypse soon

Murray Sayle


Every Japanese schoolchild knows Sep- tember 1 as a day of disaster. On that day a great earthquake levelled the un- suspecting cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, killed some 200,000 people, and impressed indelibly on the survivors that they live in one of the most dangerous corners of the world.

Sixty years to the day — when, by Asian notions, the cycle of life ends, and comes back to its starting-point — a Korean airliner with 269 on board, 28 of them Japanese, was shot down by Soviet fighters Just north of the Japanese home islands. Beyond the date, 1 September, 1983, the two events share a symmetry which has sent a shudder through people who are already superstitious, insecure, and ever on the lookout for bad omens.

The Tokyo earthquake was, despite the carnage, a symptom of somthing more fun- damental, a sudden manifestation of the immense subterranean pressures generated by the floor of the Pacific Ocean pushing irresistibly against the Asian mainland. The Korean tragedy is, analogously, something to weep over for its own sake, and a sign of worse to come, a direct consequence of the vast and not well understood political and military pressures building in East Asia. The affair of the airliner gives us a glimpse of how far these changes have already gone and, incidentally, at least a partial explana- tion of what happened in the last few minutes of Korean Airlines' doomed Flight 007.

We might trace this long swing of events at least back to 1967, the year the split bet- ween China and the Soviet Union reached the stage of political divorce and mutual arming of the parties against each other. Busy (myself included) with the cruel ir- relevancy of the war in Vietnam, few people correctly identified the split as a crucial hinge of history. One of them was, of course, Dr Henry Kissinger, a refugee specialist in European history whose lasting achievement has been to set Asians sear- ching for the balance of power which has eluded Europeans these many violent cen- turies.

The devious Doctor, if I understand him correctly, saw the Sino-Soviet conflict as probably permanent, and full of opportuni- ty for his chosen country, the United States, then burdened with an interminable war in Vietnam, a second front threatened by the Russians in Europe, and guarantees given in the 1950s to the South Koreans (against the North Koreans) and the Japanese against whoever might attack them in their islands, probably the Russians. This meant that the US was financing, and in Vietnam fighting, a global war against Communism in which the Communists had the short internal lines of communication, a central command (in Moscow) and an overwhelming preponderance of numbers all around their perimeter, which then included most of the Euro-Asian land mass.

If, however, the Chinese could be en- couraged not to switch sides (an unlikely move by either Mao or his heirs) but to become an independent and well-armed third camp, the global balance would, Kiss- inger reasoned, turn sharply against Moscow. Stripped of its Chinese subor- dinate, the Soviet Union would then be revealed for what it actually is — a power- ful and populous European state, linked by a single railway line to a distant military col- ony in the Far East, where there is no in- dustrial base, a population of only five million or so, many of them doing time, and a problem of resupply by sea which makes the Falklands seem like next-door neighbours. (Russian ships headed for Vladivostok would, in fact have to pass quite close to the Falklands, before they at- tempted to pass either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope and the Malaya- Indonesia-Australia barrier.) The Russians are, however, obliged to defend their Far Eastern possessions, for it is these which give them access to the Pacific, enable them to threaten the United

States from the West, as well as the East, make the Soviet Union an Asian power of sorts and, in short, give European Russia the status and responsibilities of a super- power. Threatened with a possible global war on two fronts, one very unfavourable to them, the Russians would thus be brought to see the virtues of détente and of accepting a world balance of power. The price to America, ditching the friendless South Vietnamese, was one that Dr Kiss- inger was glad to pay, involving as it did on- ly a short-term propaganda defeat in return for peace at home, and saddling the Rus- sians with an impossible strategic position.

The end of the line in South Vietnam is usually presented as a defeat rather than a doublecross, especially in the United States, but few knowledgeable people in Asia share this view. In 1969 the Chinese went nuclear, confirming in unambiguous military terms their declaration of ideological in- dependence. Confronted with a regime which was then, and continues to be, one of the least predictable in the world, the Soviets began to move forces to the Far East — with the first nuclear-armed sub- marines arriving in 1972, SS-20 in- termediate range ballistic missiles in 1977, and the swing-wing, supersonic Backfire bomber the same year.

For those who can't tell cruise from Pershing, some description of this apocalyp- tic hardware may be in order, bearing as it does on current events. If we are thinking of huge, solid-fuelled rockets, the kind that reach places the other rockets can't, we are thinking of the SS-N series fired from Soviet submarines, or the SS-18 and SS-19, house high affairs launched from immobile concrete pits ('silos'). Rockets of this kind have been deployed for several decades all around the borders of the Soviet Union, targeted on the more vulnerable parts of the United States, including similar American installations. In theory, the range of these devices could be shortened to drop one in your backyard, or mine, but ex- perience from Khruschev to Andropov, Kennedy to Reagan, suggests that the pro- bability of mutual destruction introduces a sobering stability into the equation, and not even a near-approach to pushing the big button has so far been reported.

Things are very different with the SS-20. This is a mobile, solid-fuelled model with four or five separately targetable nuclear warheads, each 'yielding', as they say, about five times the Hiroshima blast, at a maximum range of some 3,000 nautical (or terrestrial) miles. The plain purpose of such weapons is to fight land battles, either in Europe or those parts of Asia handy to the Soviet. Union, and there are, in fact believed to be about a hundred of them deployed in the Soviet Far East, with something like double that number in and about Europe.

Well, we might think, we all have to go some time, so what difference does the size of rocket make? This ignores the crucial point about all these ballistic missiles, namely that the only known form of defence aganst them is to threaten to do the

same to your opponent, and have him believe that you mean it. The shorter-range Soviet missiles, like the SS-20 threaten America's allies without threatening the United States. This is more than just comf- orting for the Americans. It means that, in current nuclear theory, the Russians can fire off a salvo of SS-20s without automatically triggering an American response, as such a response launched from, say, Omaha against Omsk, would in- itiate an instant superpower nuclear ex- change, eliminating both players.

The result, in strict nuclear theory (we are not here discussing whether Yuri Andropov is a nice chap or a bloodstained murderer) is that the Russians can, whenever they like, take out Oldham, Obergurgl — or Osaka without a response from Omaha. Gigantic as it is, the American nuclear deterrent has lost, in technical terms, its credibility. Bri- tain and France, we know, maintain their own nuclear deterrents against just such an eventuality, but where does the introduc- tion of the SS-20 into Europe leave West Germany? And, in the Far East, where does it leave America's two sworn allies in the region, Japan and South Korea?

The Soviet Union does not, as we might expect, see things this way. When asked, Russian officials explain privately that the SS-20s in Asia are there to meet the threat from the unruly Chinese, and menace no one else. This argument has, it must be said, a certain force. In Europe, the NATO allies first deployed battlefield nuclear weapons, and now plan to introduce cruise and Pershing missiles, as the only way of equalising their numerical inferiority in men and missiles. The Russian steamroller, when it works, is a formidable sight, and it currently comprises 200 divisions and 20,000 tanks, with snow on their tracks.

In Asia, the tables are turned. The Rus- sians have 50 divisions or thereabouts east of Lake Baikal, say 500,000 men to face four million Chinese regulars and 30 million reservists with, of course, many more where they came from. One swift blow is their only chance, and the SS-20, mobile and multiple-headed, the ideal weapon to destroy Chinese communications and break up the immense troop concentrations sure to be sent rolling over the Soviets' thinly- manned maritime provinces. But the same mobility and medium range threatens both South Korea and Japan, neither of which have at the present tense moment, any way of replying.

This inter-reaction of new technical developments, leading to new political arrangements, leading in turn to the de- mand for ever more technical developments is not new. That percipient cleric Pope John Paul II, observing recently that we seem to be in a 'pre-war era', may have had in mind the run-up to the first World War, a time when there were, as now, obvious and growing conflicts in the world, but no more than normally loony politicians about, and even a certain consensus among Europeans on some fundamentals of economics and ideology. Nevertheless, the machine gun, the railway and armour plate introduced new and untried elements into war, leading to a naval race between Britain and Ger- many, and a competitive build-up of armies between Germany, Austria, France and the ever-mysterious Russia of the Czars. All this cost a lot of money, which needed, in turn, politicians to explain that the apocalypse was not far off, but could be avoided by ever more and newer weapons.

'We can see a similar inter-action between men and materiel working itself out in Asian nuclear matters. The Kissinger plan did indeed extricate the United States from Vietnam, and establish a new triangular relationship, US — China — USSR, just as the Doctor ordered. The reward, to the United States, at any rate, was declining defence budgets in the halcyon years 1972-79. Dr Kissinger's detente was, however, always defined in strictly Euro- pean terms, with the steady movement of Soviet forces to the vulnerable Far East not counted or, apparently, even much con- sidered. So, campaigning in 1975, Jimmy Carter promised that he would remove the garrison of 38,000 American troops in South Korea, and actually looked at this idea when he got into office. Both South Koreans and Japanese protested violently and the scheme was dropped.

Exist Carter, deeply embroiled in the Middle East, to the exclusion of the Asian problems, enter Reagan. With, as his Secre- tary of State, Dr Kissinger's apprentice, ex- General Al Haig. The latter is, of course (despite a brief appearance in Vietnam) a European specialist, too, and things went indifferently for the United States in Asia for the first two Reagan years. Part of the trouble stemmed from ignorance, part from the fact that among the gun nuts and born again conservatives on the right wing of Reagan's party there are people who consider that one Communist is as bad as another, and who, accordingly, want no part of the Chinese, only excepting the stubborn remnant on Taiwan, a constant ir- ritant between Washington and Peking.

Ideological pickiness of this kind is only possible for people who possess overwhelm- ing strength, and this the United States no longer has, or can afford to have. Students of these matters will recall, in the early days of Reagan, the President's publicly express- ed longing for an anti-missile missile which would restore America to the days of nuclear invulnerability, 1945-1949. But such a device is nowhere on either the technological or budgetary horizons. The only alternative in sight is some form of Kissingerism, that is, to achieve by diplomacy the preponderance over the Soviets which the US can no longer accom- plish by industrial means, with the aim, of course, of deterring superpower nuclear war. The Russians have a similar aim, as far as we know, but have had even less luck lately in bringing it to pass.

We have thus seen considerable changes in the posture of America towards its allies and associates in Asia, growing in tempo as 1983 slouched towards the sad affair of the Korean airliner. To those accustomed to the comparative simplicity of NATO, the changes are complicated, but their general direction is clear. A duplication of NATO in the Far East, which might at first sight seem the simplest answer to the Soviet build-up (itself a reaction to the uncertainty of the situation) is out of the question, for a number of reasons. First, the Chinese, the eastern equivalent of West Germany, have over and over made it clear that they are not available for anything more than a limited understanding with the United States or anyone else (most recently by abstaining on the UN resolution condemning the shoot- ing-down of KAL 007.) They are thus both in and out of the nuclear equation, itself an alarming state of affairs.

Then again, it is industrially impossible for South Korea, and politically impossible for Japan to become nuclear powers in any usefully near future. In the case of Japan, even the permanent deployment of land- based Cruise or Pershing missiles is at pre- sent unthinkable (last week the Japanese parliament was seriously debating a Socialist proposal for a return to unarmed neutrality.) However, American policy now calls for a division of military labour with both her East Asian allies and they in turn want something more concrete than a vaguely worded treaty as a guarantee that they will not be left in that lurch into which South Vietnam disappeared in 1975.

The solution found has been renewed overtures to the Chinese; increased co- operation with the military hierarchies of both Japan and South Korea, some public, some in the nature of these things unan- nounced; and a startling (until you under- stand the reason behind it) increase in American naval activity, in and around the waters of both allies. Co-operation between the US and South Korean militaries has, of Course, always been close — the present chief of staff of the US army, General John A. Wickham Jnr was, for instance, until last May in command of the American gar- rison in South Korea and, as such commander-in-chief of the South Korean ('United Nations') forces as well. General Wickham, 'in his private capacity', pro- moted the manoeuvres of South Korean strongman President Chun Do-Hwan to succeed the assassinated Park Chung-Hee. As for the Japanese, the airliner incident has disclosed rapid communications bet- . ween them and the American military forces, with the latter apparently transmit- ting information from one part of the Japanese Self-Defence system to another.

Then, between February and April this year, we had 'Team Spirit', the biggest joint exercises between Americans and South Koreans since the end of the Korean war, with some 200,000 troops of both countries In play. What, in effect was being practised was rapid, large-scale troop and supply movements between Japan and South Korea, countries which, until recently had distant and uncooperative relationships. There are known to be American nuclear weapons in South Korea, perhaps 500 warheads in all, but most of these are in mines or artillery shells, and none match the fearsome SS-20 in range and 'yield'.

After Team Spirit the American super- carrier USS Enterprise called at Sasebo, in

Japan, the first 'port call' of such a ship (nuclear-powered and presumably nuclear- armed) in 15 years, followed by a cruise of

Enterprise, the carriers USS Midway and Carl Vinson, and an armada of supporting ships and aircraft along the coast of Siberia,

Passing close to Petropavlovsk on the Kam- chatka Peninsula, one of the main Soviet nuclear submarine bases in the Far East (later to be overflown, on that fateful night, by the Korean airliner).

Then we have, currently under way, a joint exercise between US and Japanese ships, with two American nuclear sub- marines, directed towards blocking various straits around the Japanese islands 'in an emergency'. One of these straits is between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Soviet island of Akhalin. The Korean airliner was shot down 75 miles from the same strait, which controls the sea ap- proach to Vladivostok, the main Soviet

base in the Far East. On 1 October the Carl Vinson, 81,400 tons (she looks rather like a floating Heathrow) was due to make yet

another 'port call', her first, to Sasebo, a naval base which controls the strait between Japan and South Korea.

These changes in American policy in Asia were summarised in the flying visit to Tokyo and Peking made last week by the US Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger.

In Tokyo, he said that the people aboard the Korean airliner 'had become the victims of the paranoia of a corrupt government system which occupies Japanese territory illegally' — the last phrase a clear reference to Japan's claim for the return of four small islands seized by the Soviet Union in the last days of the Second World War. Americans have previously been non-committal about this claim, as the islands were promised to Stalin by Harry Truman as a reward for the Soviets entering the war against Japan, on the grounds that they controlled the ap- proaches to Vladivostok. The US now seems to be taking up the Japanese claim, part of the new and closer military relation- ship between the two countries.

In Peking, Weinberger's speech used the expressions 'strategic corners' and 'global issues' six times, to which his Chinese op- posite number, Zhang Aiping replied stand- offishly 'We will not attach ourselves to any powers or any bloc of powers, nor will we ever yield to any foreign pressures.' An unnamed American diplomat in Peking said the purpose of Weinberger's visit was `to re-engage the Chinese in something we once had but lost — strategic dialogue'.

Thus we have seen a pattern of steady pressure, partly verbal and political, but also involving very real ships and presumably just as real weapons, building up against the Soviet position in the Far East for the past year or more. The Rus- sians have, of course also seen it, because they are supposed to — the idea being to confront them with as solid a front as possi- ble, and the threat of a two-front war if they attack either the United States or its allies. They have replied in kind, with a pointed reminder to Japan of 'the fate of Hiroshima', naval and air force displays of their own, reinforcement of the garrisons and aircraft they maintain on and near the disputed islands, and ominous ballistic missile tests, one, apparently, on the very night the Korean airliner was shot down.

Flight KAL 007, turning off the normal course to cross first the Kamchatka Penin- sula and then Sakhalin Island, was thus overflying a hornet's nest, in an area where military pressures are rapidly building, alignments are changing, the players have different and contradictory interests, and a start has scarcely been made on working out the tacit agreements and ground rules which have all but eliminated incidents on the East-West frontier in Europe. Even the spectacle of Russian, American and Japanese ships dredging side by side in the Sea of Okhotsk for the airliner's 'black box', each apparently confident that the contents will support its accusations of treachery and murder against the other, is one to give us more than pause.

Every sixty years, the Asians say, the- cycle of life begins again. This one is off to a nerve-wracking start, with the sad flotsam of wreckage and human remains still drift- ing on to Japanese beaches, and the whole baffling story far from ended.