head3a.jpg (10843 bytes)
home.jpg (1120 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
summary.jpg (1793 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
documents.jpg (1356 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
related.jpg (1674 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
mn_papers.jpg (1196 bytes)
map.jpg (1141 bytes)
glossaries.jpg (1371 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
bibliography.jpg (1625 bytes)
spacer.jpg (782 bytes)
links.jpg (1178 bytes)

Foreign Policy Research Institute
A Catalyst for Ideas

The American Strategic Position in East Asia

by Dov S. Zakheim

12 May 2000

This is the text of the keynote address to the FPRI conference on "Flashpoints in East Asia," held in Philadelphia on 12 May 2000. A former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, Dov Zakheim is Corporate Vice President of System Planning Corporation and President of SPC International. He is also a Trustee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. For a copy of the conference report, contact FPRI at fpri@fpri.org or call 215-732-3774, ext. 201.

Reprinted with permission from FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For membership information, contact Alan Luxenberg at 215-732-3774, ext. 105 or fpri@fpri.org

green_line.gif (209 bytes)


The American Strategic Position in East Asia

by Dov S. Zakheim


With the exception of the period 1941-44 the United States has maintained a continuous land force presence in East Asia for well over a century. It acquired the Philippines from Spain having defeated that country in 1898, and established its control over the Philippines by quelling an insurrection that lasted well into the twentieth century. In addition, its Navy was the first western force to visit Japan -- in 1853, and operated intermittently in China from the 1840s onwards. Since World War II American tactical aviation has joined land and naval forces as part of the ongoing American presence in the region.

American force predominates in East Asia. It draws upon not only the units forward deployed there, but also its alliance with, and logistical support from, regional states, most notably Japan. In addition, the American military presence benefits from the world's most sophisticated and responsive logistics capabilities. Our logistics infrastructure can and does furnish reinforcements and other forms of support more quickly than any other military organization in the world.

Not only does America have a strong strategic position in the region, that position is not eroding as quickly as some feared it would. North Korea, the one East Asian State that is avowedly hostile to America and her interests, remains an economic basket case. Its military is an aging, poorly equipped force that confronts across the demilitarized zone the modern and efficient Republic of Korea defense force. The People's Republic of China's relationship with Washington has been sufficiently ambiguous to lead the Clinton Administration to anticipate Beijing as a "strategic partner." Russia, an American antagonist as part of the former Soviet Union, possesses neither the will nor the wherewithal to challenge American positions in the region. Vietnam, America's former adversary, now courts Washington even as it remains nominally Communist.

Moreover, democracy is spreading throughout the region. Indonesia, the largest state in Southeast Asia, has a democratically elected legislature, which in turn elected a civilian chief executive. President Wahid is the first civilian to hold the presidency in thirty-five years. Taiwan confirmed the depth of its democracy by turning out the party that ruled the island since 1949. The Philippines and Thailand have opened up their societies, both economically and politically.

Given these developments, it should come as no surprise that an Administration whose leading foreign policy makers are Europeanists would take only intermittent interest in East Asia. Only when a crisis materialized that came to dominate media headlines did the upper echelons of the Clinton Administration sit up and take notice of Asian affairs. At all other times, East Asia was left in the hands of "specialists," another way of saying that it was forgotten by all whose decisions really mattered.

Has the Administration been correct in assigning lower priority to East Asia? Can we anticipate that the stability that has marked Asian affairs for nearly three decades will endure for the foreseeable future? In other words, is the best policy towards Asia one of benign neglect?

To answer this question in the affirmative is to postulate that the underlying political, military, social and economic trends in the region point in a positive direction and can be expected to materialize of their own accord. That may perhaps be the view of some in Washington. It certainly does not reflect reality in the region.

It is true that the spread of democracy continues, and that much of Asia appears to be on the mend from the 1997-98 economic crisis. Yet democracy by no means has come to dominate in the region, and, in the case of Taiwan, may be facing its greatest threat since it was set in train by Chiang Ching-kuo. Nor has democracy reared its head in Vietnam or Myanmar, whose people continue to suffer under ossified authoritarian regimes.

China continues to modernize its military at an ever increasing pace. It has shifted the focus of its troop deployments from its northern borders to those in the south, and especially the southeast. It is modernizing its ballistic missile forces for the first time in decades. It has expanded and modernized its amphibious capabilities -- which are clearly intended for an assault on Taiwan.

North Korea, despite ongoing economic wreckage that has left millions dead since 1994, has continued to develop its ballistic missile forces. Its unambiguous objective is to threaten the United States, hence its progression from the Taepo Dong 1 to the Taepo Diong 2. No doubt its military planners are already anticipating an even longer-range Taepo Dong 3.

Pyongyang continues to make its missile technology and hardware available to other enemies of the United States, especially in the Middle East. Nor has it divested itself of the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and to do so in a relatively short time frame. Having signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, it nevertheless appears to have played fast and loose with its commitments. There is still considerable concern about what is suspected to be an underground facility at Kum Chang Ni.

Regional economies remain fragile. Japan has yet to recover from the economic doldrums in which it has been mired for over a decade. Its weakness renders unlikely the prospect that it will be able to furnish the aid or investment that would serve as an economic stimulant to Southeast Asia. In this regard, the prospects for Indonesian recovery are still uncertain. And the underlying macro-economic factors in China are insufficiently understood to allow for sanguine predictions about that country's future.

Social schisms, and especially the specter of Muslim extremism, are manifest throughout the Indonesian archipelago and into the neighboring Philippines. Minorities remain vulnerable in those countries, and in Malaysia. Piracy is on the rise. And there is no clear regional approach to dealing with future humanitarian crises such as that which engulfed East Timor, especially given the pressure on limited Australian resources that has resulted from that crisis.



The Clinton Administration, to the extent that it has suppressed its Eurocentric proclivities to pay any attention to Asia, has always focused on the here and now. It has eschewed longer-term concerns in favor of near-term problem solving. The nearest-term issue confronting the Clinton team is Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) with China. Next on the agenda after PNTR is military aid to Taiwan, though the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act may no longer be a front-burner issue for the Republican-controlled Congress. There is also the lingering problem of Korea; the Administration has yet to reformulate its policy in the face of the impending North-South summit.

These are, of course, important issues. But so too are ongoing instability in Indonesia, the American relationship with Japan, particularly with respect to missile defense and the Marine presence on Okinawa, and America's role in coping with new regional humanitarian crises. Not to be overlooked either, and in no particular order, are matters already touched upon -- the re-emergence of violent Muslim extremism in the Philippines, and the growth of piracy -- as well as the unsettled status of the Spratly Islands, ASEAN's weakness, and the fate of Tibet and of the Falun Gong. All of these issues need to be viewed as part of a coherent long-term political, military, economic and social strategy for America in East Asia. Simply to address PNTR, or arms sales to Taiwan, in a policy void is to invite further damaging Asian perceptions of American seriousness of purpose and staying power in the region.



About nine years ago, during a business trip to China, I had the opportunity to visit a students' dormitory at the People's University in Beijing. The young men that I met were all studying international relations. Some had been very active in the events culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre only a couple of years earlier. Whatever their backgrounds, they seemed in agreement on one point: the United States was a fading power in Asia, while China was on the rise.

It was not that they were badly disposed toward the United States. They simply were convinced that American budget cuts, and lack of interest, would lead the United States to withdraw its military presence from the region, and that China would naturally inherit the American mantle. For them, the long-term threat was that of Japan, and the prospective American withdrawal meant that China would be left to its own devices when confronting that threat.

So far, at least, those students were wrong. America has not withdrawn from the region; Japan has not remilitarized unilaterally. But China has indeed bolstered its military capabilities, as it has ridden the wave of its economic expansion. Since I met those students, both Hong Kong and Macao have been returned to the mainland. Beijing has now clearly set its sights on Taiwan, which, in Beijing's eyes, is the last remaining vestige of previous centuries' humiliating legacy of foreign domination.

I do not recall that the students that I met had much to say about Taiwan. The island was still emerging from Chiang Kai-shek's authoritarian rule, and it still very much adhered to a one-China policy. A decade later Taiwan is a thriving democracy of 22 million people. The ruling Kuomintang has at last lost its grip on the political system. Its people consider themselves a nation apart from China. Nevertheless, given their massive investments on the mainland, their other, more pressing economic concerns, and, not least, the preferences they perceive in Washington, they are content, for the moment, not to formalize their independent status.

The people of Taiwan recognize that the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of their freedom, a guarantee that was put to the test during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996. But Taipei is hardly complacent about the relationship with Washington; and its concern about the depth of American commitment antedates the recent accession of Chen Shui-bian to the presidency. Taipei has been far from content with the Clinton Administration's coddling of Beijing, particularly since 1997. The President's assurances to the Chinese in Shanghai during his visit to China in June 1998, his silence regarding the nature of an American response to Chinese aggression against Taipei (what some call the fourth "no"), and his equivocation on the subject of military assistance to Taipei, deferring action on Taipei's request for four AEGIS destroyers, have left the Taiwanese with a somewhat empty feeling in the pit of their stomachs. The prospect of a Gore Administration pursuing a "strategic partnership" with Beijing hardly offers the reassurances that President Chen needs if he is to resist the impulses of his party and his vice president to declare independence and be done with it.

Given the Administration's record on China, one would have expected a warm relationship with Beijing. But that has not been the case either. The White House has been signally inept in sending clear signals of any kind to China's leaders. While professing to support China's entry into the World Trade Organization, President Clinton failed to reach the agreement on entry that Zhu Rong-ji had expected to obtain on his April 1999 visit to Washington. The supposedly reform-minded premier returned home simmering with resentment over his loss of face. The President's musings during the WTO talks in Seattle, and the Vice President's courtship of American labor unions, even as the Administration seeks Permanent Normal Trade Relations, can only have left China's leaders in a state of advanced bafflement.

At least the Administration pays attention to China, however confusing that attention might be. That is more than many Japanese perceive to be the case with respect to their country. Despite upgrading its military relationship with the Untied States, both in the form of the September 23, 1997 Guidelines and the more recent agreement on research cooperation for Theater Missile Defense, Japan remains discomfited by its uncertain standing in America's vision for the future of East Asia.

Japanese policy makers have not yet forgotten that President Clinton did not see fit to visit Tokyo either before or after his trip to China. They have not benefited from much consultation regarding the need to stabilize an increasingly restive Southeast Asia. On the other hand, despite their economic doldrums, they see themselves inflicted with the usual American complaints about their unwillingness to open up their economy. The United States seems to treat Japan as an ally in much the same way some people pray by rote -- one mumbles the words without paying attention to either their content or significance.

Southeast Asians have long become used to the fact that Washington takes little notice of their affairs, unless it absolutely cannot avoid doing so. The ethnic and religious strife that marked the severing of East Timor from Indonesia remains endemic to the region. In particular, Indonesia remains vulnerable to rebellion in a half dozen provinces. And Filipino Muslims have recently reminded the world that their insurrection is far from being quelled. Piracy is a growing concern as well. And there has been no definitive resolution to competing claims to the Spratlys. Yet the United States, having reluctantly committed support forces to underpin Australia's intervention in East Timor, once again is perceived to be inclined to wait for the next regional explosion before anyone above the specialist level will pay much attention to the area.

Are the Asians wrong? Is the U.S. pursuing a more consistent, coherent and focused policy than they perceive? While Administration apologists would certainly say so, there appear to be few others who would agree. Nevertheless, if only because of inertia, the United States remains a major actor in the region, and it continues to have opportunities to play an active positive role in pursuing its interest in regional stability and prosperity that it shares with many of its East Asian friends and allies.



China is the new Beltway buzzword. For some it is the enemy of the future, the source of planning scenarios to justify major force structure increments and larger defense budgets. For others, it remains a vast untapped market, the source of expanded sales and increased profits. For yet others it is the great violator of human rights, persecuting ethnic and religious minorities, and trampling upon the rights of individuals who dare to think that their country deserves better than an unelected authoritarian gerontocracy for its source of governance.

China is, to some extent, all of the above. It need not necessarily be America's next great strategic antagonist. But it could be. After all, it was a Chinese general who in 1996 spoke of nuclear attacks on Los Angeles, not an American officer contemplating a strike on Shanghai. China continues to expand and upgrade its ballistic missile force, even as it opposes any form of American ballistic missile program, tactical or strategic. Even the Russians do not go that far. And China's buildup in Fujian and other southern provinces in the vicinity of Taiwan continues unabated, while its sabre rattling is as noisy as ever.

Not long ago I had occasion to visit Beijing's exhibit in commemoration of a half century of the People's Republic. Taking pride of place in the Great Exhibition Hall was a diorama depicting the amphibious assault on Taiwan. The exhibit was viewed by tens of thousands of Chinese every day for three weeks. It has since been on a tour of the country. The message to the Chinese people is clear: Taiwan will be retaken by force. If Americans take that message seriously, China's leadership should not be surprised.

Yet China is also a major American trading partner. Not as large as some might think -- Japan's trade with the US is about twice that of the PRC, but not insignificant either. As the Chinese economy continues to grow, the prospects for more trade, and American sales, brightens accordingly. It is true that Germany and Britain were each other's largest trading partners prior to World War I. But it is also true that it was trade that underpinned the creation of the European Union, which has rendered war between Britain and Germany virtually unthinkable.

And while China remains a major violator of human rights, it has by all accounts improved its record since its economic restructuring began some two decades ago. Ordinary Chinese appear far less fearful about expressing themselves religiously. Their lifestyles are not nearly as regimented as in the recent past. It is in matters political, both in terms of free expression and those of ethnic identity, that China clings to its authoritarian moorings.

While the Clinton Administration's inconsistent policies toward China have prompted the confusion I have already noted, its support for Permanent Normal Trading Relations is right on the mark. Trade affords the United States the wherewithal to inject its values directly into the heart of Chinese society. It exposes ever larger numbers of Chinese to Americans, their way of life, and the freedoms they both cherish and nurture. And it raises the cost to China of unwarranted aggression. It is therefore not only good for the economies of both countries, it is good for their polities as well.

It is sad indeed that members of the President's own party, and, depending on what day of the week it is, his own Vice President, are ambivalent, if not hostile to PNTR. But the Republican Congress, for all that it has been tarred as isolationist, will approve PNTR, demonstrating yet again that when there is foreign policy leadership at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is a healthy dose of bipartisanship at the other end.

PNTR should be the model for a bipartisan approach to the Taiwan Strait issue. The Congress is rightly concerned that America's military guarantees to Taiwan are nothing of the sort. They are vague on paper and uncertain in practice. Without military-to-military cooperation with the US, as well as continuing provision of American military equipment, Taiwan cannot credibly defend itself against the mainland. Taiwan knows this and China knows this.

Taiwanese weakness could encourage Chinese boldness; as a result, America could then find itself doing exactly what it would prefer not to do: confronting China militarily to preserve the integrity of Taiwan. The Senate appears willing to defer any formal legislation regarding the US-Taiwan relationship. The Administration should not seize upon the Senate's forbearance to allow for the further erosion of Taiwan's military capabilities, but rather to take practical steps to ensure that a strong Taiwan offers an immediate deterrent to any predatory designs in Beijing.



The United States rightly is very interested in the outcome of the upcoming North-South summit. The agreement of the two Korean leaders to meet brings us back to 1994, when Kim Il-Sung and Kim Dae Jung announced a summit, only to have it indefinitely deferred as a result of the venerable North Korean's death. It was in that year too that military tensions almost spun out of control, until they were defused by the Agreed Framework to cap and roll back the North Korean nuclear program.

The Framework would be more credible if North Korea did not engage in supporting terrorism, exporting ballistic missiles, and continuing to act in other ways that make support for its water reactor program highly questionable. On the other hand, we should not turn back on prior agreements, particularly those of such recent vintage. Hopefully, the two Koreas will make some progress; it is still in everyone's interest that the Korean Peninsula be reunited as peacefully as was Germany just over a decade ago.

As with Germany, however, outside parties must be included in the picture. In the case of Korea, those key parties are the United States and Japan. In contrast to its enthusiastic support for German reunification, Washington in particular must approach the Summit and its aftermath with considerable skepticism. Not only are North Korean violations of the Framework a cause for suspicion. So too have been the incursions by commandos at the very time that the South was first promulgating its "sunshine" policy. American caution is especially warranted since it is the United States that remains the ultimate guarantor of South Korean -- and Japanese -- security.



As I have already indicated, it is not enough to focus on the short term crises and developments that capture newspaper headlines and television soundbites. This is especially so in the case of East Asia, a region where collective memory spans centuries, and affronts are recalled decades later as if they had taken place the day before. For this reason, the United States must re-energize its relationship with Tokyo.

Japan's economy has only just begun to recover, and its political system appears to be as ossified as ever. Yet Japan remains a major force for potential investment in Southeast Asia, while its military has taken on new responsibilities under the 1997 Guidelines. Japan is also likely to be the focus of increasing Chinese wrath as it conducts research into missile defense. Beijing will do all it can to pressure Tokyo to back out of the joint program with the United States. Only careful American attention to Japanese concerns and sensibilities will promise even the hope that a joint Japanese-American missile shield can be realized in East Asia. To that end, Washington should regularize consultations with Tokyo at higher levels than has been the case in recent years. It should also continue to seek a long-term solution to the presence of the US Marines on Okinawa. Lastly, it should relegate economic spats to the second order issues that they are.

Japan's economy hardly is the threat to the United States that many thought it was in the 1980s. It is as much, if not more, in Japan's interest that its economy open up to the plethora of investment vehicles that have fueled the unparalleled growth of the US economy over the past decade. It is not that American concerns are illegitimate, only that they have been blown out of proportion.



ASEAN was in many ways an American creation: Washington fostered the emergence of what was then a six-country regional grouping to offset the influence of China. ASEAN now includes communist Vietnam, authoritarian Burma, and poverty stricken Laos and Cambodia. Indonesia, once ASEAN's linchpin, is a shadow of its former self. The same could be said of the organization as a whole.

The American attitude to ASEAN has generally been one of benign neglect. Yet the underlying factors that prompted Australian intervention in East Timor -- ethnic and religious tensions -- bedevil other parts of the region, and cry out for regional solutions. There is no one country that, on its own, can fill Indonesia's void in ASEAN. Perhaps a coalition of several countries could do so.

Australia might be able once again to contribute its forces to help quell such crises. But Canberra's resources have already been stretched very thin by the East Timor operation, and it is not at all clear that Australia will be in a position to duplicate what it was able to do in 1999. Some other country -- or coalition of countries -- will have to take the lead.

As for Washington, its response to the crises in East Timor and, more recently, Sierra Leone, indicates that it has at last come to its senses and will play second fiddle to someone else when its own interests are not directly threatened. Nevertheless, unless the United States leads an active planning effort to cope with such crises, the likelihood that anyone will take the lead is minimal. The ASEAN states have traditionally been reluctant to say "boo" to one another. Washington will have to undertake a concerted effort to change Southeast Asian patterns of behavior. It must spur ASEAN to plan for joint action in the face of humanitarian strife similar to what was so recently seen in East Timor.

Clearly, the United States can only do so if it maintains not only an interest in the region, but a credible, tangible regional presence as well. That presence need not only be measured in numbers of personnel. In an era of information warfare, presence is more than just troops on the ground, or, for that matter, on a ship. Yet what some might call "virtual presence" -- a kind of long-distance presence on the cheap, will not do either. We must maintain a significant maritime force in East Asia. That force should some day include missile defense warships as well as the carrier task forces, amphibious ships and other units that have been a familiar sight in Asian ports for decades. We must maintain our Marine and Air Force presence in Japan, even as we continue to find better ways of accounting for Okinawan sensibilities. And we should not be too hasty about withdrawing forces from Korea until we know for certain that their deployment there is no longer required. After all, we still maintain a military presence in a united, peaceful, and prosperous Germany.

I believe that I have exhausted the time that has been allotted to me for these remarks. Let me return to where I began. The American strategic position in Asia is surprisingly good. We have no enemies there -- China may not be a strategic partner, but it is no enemy and need not be. It is truly a competitor, and competitions can be friendly and need not be bitter.

Apart from China, and of course, North Korea, we are among friends. We have formal alliances with six Asian states, and friendly relations with those with whom we choose to be friends. If Burma is not a friend, that is our doing; if they wish to become a friend, it is up to them to reform their society. For the rest, we are the great equalizer and stabilizer, a source of reassurance to smaller states, and of moderation to larger ones. China may be the only state in the region to wish that we depart, and, in its calmer moments, it too realizes how important our presence is for its own stability.

We have been lucky these past eight years. Despite occasional crises, some of them very serious, East Asia has not seen the level of violence that has marked the Middle East, Africa, or even Europe. But we cannot take the region for granted, nor can we continue to slight the good friends we have there. East Asia deserves our constant attention, at the highest levels of our government. This conference is a good indicator that FPRI recognizes a basic fact of international life: indifference now will bring crisis later. I can only hope that the policy community in Washington is taking copious notes.


green_line.gif (209 bytes)
Reprinted with permission from FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For membership information, contact Alan Luxenberg at 215- 732-3774, ext. 105 or fpri@fpri.org