America's alliances in East Asia
Purposes and prospects
After decades of relative quiescence bordering on inertia, American defence strategy in East Asia and the bilateral security alliances that have long underpinned this strategy are on the cusp of far-reaching change. For the first time since the early 1990s, major American military units were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in 2004, with an additional third of the remaining forces scheduled to depart between now and the end of 2008. In Japan, increased integration of American and Japanese forces is in the offing, with Tokyo contributing much more fully to US strategy in the West Pacific, including an increased emphasis on counter-proliferation, missile defence and prospective facilitation of US defence support for Taiwan. Concurrently, the United States Pacific Command is appreciably augmenting US air and naval capabilities in Guam and potentially in Hawaii. In addition, American military planners are seeking increased access in Southeast Asia to guard against a range of prospective threats to maritime security. A US-led activity designed to interdict transfers of materials for WMD programmes (the Proliferation Security Initiative) has also been initiated, with Japan, Australia and Singapore members of this arrangement.
US planners are endeavouring to reinforce America’s maritime dominance across Asia and the Pacific. These efforts will encompass missions well beyond the traditional areas of emphasis in US regional strategy, and with far less dependence on past alliance arrangements. America’s evolving regional strategy is neither bilateral nor multilateral, except in so far as regional actors are prepared to support US policy goals. With a few exceptions (most conspicuously, Japan) it is designed primarily to enlist security partners when and where needed, not to develop an integrated strategy based on a more continuous mutuality of interest. In so doing, American strategic goals will be advanced, but whether this provides a sustainable basis for longer-term security cooperation, as distinct from episodic or contingency-driven requirements, remains to be seen.
Sources of change
The looming changes in US policy derive primarily from the Bush administration’s efforts to realign its global military deployments and to move toward a ‘transformed’ military strategy, and from a parallel conviction that the Asia-Pacific region is likely to feature major challenges to US security interests in the coming decade. US strategists argue that American capabilities must focus on the presumed requirements of the post-11 September world, especially operations against terrorist groups and countering the potential threat of WMD proliferation. A new defence policy, to be enshrined in the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), scheduled for completion in February 2006, will postulate the need for far more flexible, rapidly deployable forces capable of surging in response to diverse threats, with a pronounced emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. Administration officials have asserted a simultaneous need to augment US regional capabilities to counter potential challenges posed by an ascendant China, directed against Taiwan or elsewhere. Though the end-point of this process of strategic change is far from certain, the broad directions are clear. Some of America’s long-standing bilateral security partnerships, most notably that with South Korea, will matter much less, and at least one, the relationship with Japan, will matter far more.
By disentangling US policy from some of the lingering vestiges of the Cold War, American policymakers seem determined to move toward a very different but as yet unlabelled regional strategic concept. This future approach will entail markedly different roles for US forces, and parallel changes in Washington’s expectations of various regional actors. US defence planners believe that the United States (especially in the face of severe manpower challenges posed by protracted instability in Iraq) cannot allow major American forces to ‘sit’ in locales in the service of military strategies that the administration believes have long outlived their utility. At the same time, there is an explicit expectation that US allies will assent to a reconfigured American security strategy, potentially encompassing US ‘out of area’ operations as well as military contingencies within the Asia-Pacific region. But much remains unspoken about American policy, leaving some US security partners uneasy about the underlying priorities in US regional strategy, and the precise role of long-standing allies in this emergent strategy.
Can less be more?
From the outset of George W. Bush’s presidency, senior officials have argued that US global military strategy was a remnant of the Cold War, ill suited to a very different era. In the administration’s view, future security requirements necessitated a major revamping of US policy, both to exploit the prospective advantages of new technologies in warfare and to limit the vulnerabilities of American forces either to ballistic missile or terrorist attacks. These goals have been greatly reinforced since 11 September 2001. The Asia-Pacific region was near the forefront of this process of major change, with the presumed threat to regional security no longer deriving from large-scale conventional aggression across national borders. However, there was a parallel belief that China posed an emerging major-power threat, warranting upgraded US relations with Taiwan and a reinforced US regional military presence. American officials also argued that US security commitments could no longer be predicated on specific force levels. In the West Pacific, the forward deployment of approximately 100,000 US military personnel had become a virtual shibboleth in the 1990s, repeatedly identified in US strategic reviews as a presumed guarantor of regional stability. Bush administration officials challenged this supposition, arguing that the viability of US policy was whether specific capabilities could be brought to bear in a major crisis, not the precise end-strength of US forces.
In August 2004, the Pentagon leadership, preoccupied by the Iraqi insurgency and growing shortfalls in US forces, completed the transfer of the 2nd Combat Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from South Korea to Iraq. During the same month, the Pentagon announced the results of the Global Posture Review, with more than 70,000 US forces to be withdrawn from their Cold War locations. Though the brunt of these withdrawals were to fall on US forces in Germany, US forces in South Korea were also directly affected, with US end-strength to drop to approximately 25,000 over the ensuing four years, a reduction of approximately 12,500 from the onset of the Bush administration. Senior US officials continued to insist that these shifts would not erode the credibility of the security commitment to South Korea or the US capability to intervene in a major crisis. This claim was underscored further by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s public reference in May 2005 to US nuclear deterrent capabilities, as US–North Korea tensions continued to mount.
Despite these assurances, South Korean officials see reduced US force levels and American preoccupations in Iraq presaging diminished US attention and priority to their security. Increased North Korean claims of a nuclear-weapon capability, and heightened concerns expressed by some US officials about the possibility of a nuclear-weapon test, have led to consternation in South Korea about US withdrawals and redeployments. American officials have yet to convince this long-standing ally about how and why a diminished US presence, in the context of heightened North Korean WMD capabilities, has enhanced Seoul’s security. Despite US assurances, competing demands on US forces in other regions have reduced the US regional presence. The capability for intervention in a major crisis remains an important indicator of US commitment, but allies such as South Korea do not regard this capability as offering sufficient assurance about longer-term US policy goals.
Revisiting alliance bargains
The reduction in US force levels on the peninsula is symptomatic of a larger shift in US regional priorities, with American policymakers seeking the concurrence of US allies with longer-term shifts in US defence strategy. In South Korea, the Pentagon has conveyed its intention to create air and sea hubs designed for deployments to unspecified regional contingencies beyond the peninsula. This has left South Korean defence planners doubly uneasy: firstly, because American forces would be increasingly geared toward non-peninsular missions; and secondly, because many in South Korea believe that the US is seeking to envelop Seoul in contingency planning against China, which is deemed contrary to South Korea’s strategic interests. In the eyes of South Korean policymakers, this growing divergence in alliance goals is eroding the strategic underpinnings of the alliance.
Seoul is also discomfited by more coercive approaches to curtail the North’s nuclear-weapon activities, and comparably wary of any presumptive containment strategy directed at China. President Roh Moo-hyun’s declared pursuit of a ‘balancer’ role for South Korea in Northeast Asian security highlights the major erosion of shared purpose that has long animated the US–South Korean alliance. With Seoul demurring from both the Proliferation Security Initiative and from collaboration in missile defence, the prospects for longer-term security ties between Seoul and Washington seem increasingly problematic.
US–Japan security relations appear headed in an entirely different direction. Tokyo has exhibited no comparable equivocation in aligning with US regional strategy; it is ever more intent on reinforcing its status as America’s avowed partner of choice in Asia-Pacific security. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, arguably the Japanese political leader most closely identified with the United States since Yasuhiro Nakasone in the mid-1980s, has availed himself of every opportunity to strengthen alliance ties with Washington. In the post-11 September environment, Koizumi appreciably broadened the scope of Japanese security involvement, including deployment of supply ships to the Indian Ocean in support of operations in Afghanistan, the assigning of Japanese peacekeepers to Iraq in early 2004, the involvement of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) in tsunami relief operations in Indonesia in late 2004 and early 2005, and Tokyo’s first-ever participation in the annual Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand in May 2005. Though all such activities were justified as part of Japan’s multilateral obligations (and hence distinct from the stipulations of the US–Japan alliance), the practical implications of these measures were incontestable, and vigorously endorsed by US policymakers.
From a US perspective, the biggest and most welcome changes in Japanese policy concern Tokyo’s increased readiness to contribute to regional contingencies. Japan’s more elastic definition of security policy (though still not extending explicitly to collective security obligations, in view of ongoing internal debate on constitutional revision or reinterpretation) point increasingly in the direction of a more activist Japan. At the February 2005 meeting of the US–Japan Security Consultative Committee, the four senior foreign affairs and defence officials of the two countries voiced agreement on common security objectives, without spelling out the particulars. This was very likely designed to avoid triggering even more intense reactions from China on any prospective Japanese involvement in support of a Taiwan contingency.
However, Japan and the United States have reportedly reached agreement on the enhanced use of Japanese harbours and airfields by US forces in unspecified ‘military emergencies’, which would presumably include a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The agreement could be ratified in a formal agreement as early as June 2005. In reaching agreement on such measures, Tokyo hopes to see a more accommodating US stance toward reducing US military activities (notably on Okinawa) that have long vexed local populations. Even more importantly, Japan believes that a further integrated security relationship with Washington will bring an added measure of security to Tokyo in relation to North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile activities and (over the longer run) the enhanced military power of China.
But Japan is venturing into uncharted waters with the US. Reaffirming and enhancing its security ties with Washington will draw Tokyo into progressively greater obligation to the US, quite possibly extending to major military operations, even if Japan would not be a direct participant in combat. In contrast to the major withdrawals of US forces from South Korea, Washington does not envision any significant reductions of its forces in Japan. If anything, the centrality of Japan in US strategy will be reinforced, especially in the anticipated transfer of the command functions of the US Army I Corps from Washington State to Japan and a parallel proposal to integrate the command activities of the 13th Air Force based in Guam with those of the 5th Air Force at Yokota Air Force Base. Should these steps materialise, Japan would be ever more tethered to future US defence strategy throughout the region. This would presumably entail enhanced US obligations to Japan as well, but the Bush administration would achieve an augmented regional presence that it has long sought. Japan would constitute an American ally like no other in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the singularity of such a prospective relationship, all the more so in light of Japan’s highly problematic, emotionally charged relations with China, both Koreas, and still festering differences with Russia, ought to give both Washington and Tokyo pause.
Other long-time partners such as Australia and Singapore have a profound and enduring stake in close relations with the United States, ones that Washington has neither incentive nor reason to diminish. But such interdependence does not imply automatic assent to US strategy, particularly in relation to the vexing possibilities of armed conflict related to Taiwan. America’s world may look different after 11 September, but geography and national interest dictate an abiding regional stake in non-adversarial relations with China, a path that the United States also claims to seek. Seen in this light, America’s regional alliances should still matter profoundly, but so should US relations with an emergent China.
This article is taken from the latest issue of Strategic Comments and appears by permission of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which retains the copyright. Strategic Comments, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides fact-based analysis on issues of strategic significance. It responds to breaking developments in international affairs and anticipates policy questions that are likely to loom large in the calculations of governments, analysts and businesses. Ten issues, each containing five 1,700-word illustrated articles, are published each year. If you would like to subscribe to Strategic Comments, please email James Hackett at [email protected] or click here
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