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
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
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.
FACING THE IMMEDIATE ISSUES
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
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.
HOW ASIANS VIEW THE U.S.
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
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
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 AND PNTR
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
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.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE KOREAN PENINSULA?
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 --
ENERGIZING THE RELATIONSHIP WITH JAPAN
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
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.