Problems with Current U.S. Policy

By Shorrock, Tim | Foreign Policy in Focus, July 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Problems with Current U.S. Policy


Shorrock, Tim, Foreign Policy in Focus


According to a 1998 statement by the Department of Defense (DOD), U.S. bases in Japan and Korea "remain the critical component of U.S. deterrent and rapid response strategy in Asia" that "enables the U.S. to respond more rapidly and flexibly in other areas." In addition, "Japanese peacetime host nation support remains the most generous of any of America's allies around the world, averaging about $5 billion each year."

Strangely, the climate shrouding the U.S.-Japanese military alliance is more warlike than during most of the cold war. What should have logically followed the demise of the Soviet Union (and the subsequent economic collapse of North Korea) was a peace dividend taking the form of a reduction in forward-deployed U.S. troops and bases, a review of cold war-based alliances, a search for alternative security arrangements, and steps toward denuclearization and demilitarization of the region.

At one point, such a scenario was in the works; a decade ago, the Pentagon was planning to cut back to "a minimal presence" in Japan by 2000. But exactly the opposite has happened. Under new U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines approved in May 1999, the bilateral military relationship between Japan and the U.S. has significantly expanded. Japan has agreed to make its ports, airports, hospitals, and transportation system available to U.S. forces during a war in Korea, and join U.S. military operations in "areas surrounding Japan" -- a broad description U.S. officials say could involve Japanese support in situations from East Asia to the Persian Gulf.

The turning point for U.S. policy in Asia came in 1995, when the DOD, in a major reversal, committed the U.S. to an indefinite "forward deployment" of 100,000 troops in Northeast Asia, subject to review in 2015. The author of the Pentagon's study was Joseph Nye, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Bush administration. Nye explained that U.S. officials had decided to halt the reductions because of a reassessment of "the realities of the region" following the demise of the Soviet Union. These realities include the rise of China, new dangers from North Korea, and a new set of concerns led by uncertainty, regional conflicts, and rogue states.

"Alliances can be adopted for a post-cold war era, not against a particular enemy but as a guarantor of security," Nye told the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club in September 1994. He explained that "the U.S.-Japan alliance is not against a particular adversary but against a situation where countries in the region might feel pushed to arm themselves against each other and against uncertainty." Nye concluded that there is a "need for a strong forward United States military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to protect vital American interests."

U.S. policy has not changed despite the vast changes underway in Asia, particularly the historic rapprochement between South and North Korea. In June, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean President Kim Jong Il met in Pyongyang and established a framework to end the state of war between the two Koreas, to begin economic cooperation, and to create institutions allowing the two countries to slowly begin the process of unifying into a single nation.

After those meetings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued against any changes in U.S. policy. "With the American forces in Okinawa, there are forces here in the region that help provide stability," she said. …

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