Reluctant Guardian: The United States in East Asia

By Charles W. Freeman, jr. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Reluctant Guardian: The United States in East Asia

Charles W. Freeman, jr., Harvard International Review

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, only the Asia Pacific region has seemed at peace and relatively free of change. The collapse of multiethnic states and empires has rocked Europe, Eurasia, and Africa. Anarchy and ethnic or religious strife have broken out in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, the trans-Caucasus, Liberia, Zaire, Somalia, and Rwanda. The Middle East has seen a brutal Iraqi attempt to annex Kuwait and the end of civic consensus in Algeria. Major changes have taken place in the relationships between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs, and civil society has gradually reemerged in Lebanon. Confrontation with military regimes in Panama and Haiti and a border war between Peru and Ecuador has marked the advent of a new era in Latin America. Many of these situations have occasioned US military intervention or serious consideration of it--either in the name of the United States itself or under the banner of the United Nations.

At the same time, there have been major adjustments in US military spending and personnel levels. As a percentage of GNP, US military spending is now at the level of the mid- to late 1930s. The size of the US armed forces has shrunk to numbers last seen in 1939. Outside the Asia Pacific region, the United States has radically adjusted the pattern of its military deployments. The United States has built up its forces in the Persian Gulf, and the Atlantic Alliance, which France has now rejoined, is expanding eastward through the Partnership for Peace. The United States had withdrawn two-thirds of its forces from Europe by the time it joined the operation in the Balkans, the first military operation in NATO history.

In contrast, with US forces out of the Philippines, the United States seeks no further adjustments in the pattern of Asia Pacific alliances it developed during the Cold War. On the contrary, Washington affirms that the United States will keep the same number of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen--about 100,000--in the Asia Pacific region that it has stationed there for the past decade or more. Few in Asia are confident that such a US presence will in fact be sustained. Southeast Asians and South Koreans hope that it will be. Increasingly, however, Chinese, and even some Japanese, question whether it should be. They are joined in their skepticism by some US citizens who espouse America-first policies. Others in the United States doubt the relevance of military alliances. Despite the mounting evidence from other regions, these Americans continue to expect the coming decades to be dominated by economic, rather than political or military contention. We must all hope they are right.

Beneath the surface calm, however, the Asia Pacific region is undergoing changes no less profound than those that are transforming other regions. These changes go well beyond the well-publicized economic miracle in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and adjacent areas that is making the region the center of gravity for global trade and investment. They include political and military trends that challenge both the existing strategic balance in the region and the US role in it. A February 1995 paper from the Pentagon's directorate for International Security Affairs defined the role preferred by the United States for its forces in the East Asia. The "United States Security Strategy for the East Asia Pacific Region" envisages maintenance of the existing US alliance structure and military presence "as a foundation of regional stability and a means of promoting American influence on key Asian issues." It posits continued cooperation with Asian allies and friends "to deter potential threats, counter regional aggression, ensure regional peace, monitor attempts at proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and help protect sea lines of communication both within the region and from the region to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf." In short, the United States sees its alliances and cooperative engagement with non-allies as enabling it to underwrite the Asia Pacific balance and the peaceful evolution of the status quo while facilitating the nonviolent resolution of disputes within the region. …

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