All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 2000

America in East Asia

Local Parties Should Take Responsibility for Their Own Security

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

The Cold War ended a decade ago, but America’s defense posture has changed little, especially in East Asia. Washington policymakers seem determined to keep at least 100,000 military personnel in the region, apparently forever. Indeed, the administration is presently expanding America’s military presence in East Asia.

It’s time for a change. Rather than enhancing security ties when threats against the United States have dramatically diminished, Washington should initiate a phased withdrawal of American forces from the region.

U.S. taxpayers spent roughly $13 trillion (in current dollars) and sacrificed 113,000 lives (mostly in East Asian wars) to win the Cold War. For five decades Washington provided a defense shield behind which noncommunist countries throughout East Asia grew economically and democratically.

Japan is now the world’s second-ranking economic power. Taiwan’s dramatic jump from poverty to prosperity encouraged the leaders of the communist mainland to undertake fundamental economic reforms. South Korea dramatically outstrips communist North Korea on virtually every measure of national power. After years of failure, countries like Thailand have grown significantly (despite their recent setbacks).

At the same time, the environment has become more benign. The Soviet Union has disappeared, and a much weaker Russia has neither the capability nor the will for East Asian adventurism. In China, tough-minded communism has dissolved into a cynical excuse for incumbent officeholders to maintain power. So far Beijing’s military renewal has been modest; its posture has been assertive rather than aggressive—although its saber-rattling toward Taiwan remains of concern.

Southeast Asia suffers from economic and political instability, but such problems threaten no one outside the immediate neighborhood. Only North Korea constitutes a genuine security threat, but that totalitarian state, though odious, is no replacement for the threat once posed by the Soviet Union.

Alas, so far neither the Clinton administration nor Congress seems to have noticed these changes. U.S. policy looks very much as it did during the Cold War. Washington’s motto appears to be “what has ever been, must ever be.”

The Pentagon’s 1995 assessment of U.S. security policy in East Asia (the Nye Report) made the astonishing assertion that “the end of the Cold War has not diminished” the importance of any of America’s regional security commitments. In November 1998 the Department of Defense (DOD) released an updated report that advanced the same outdated arguments. More than a year later U.S. policy remains the same. The administration’s watchword, and that of the leading Republican presidential contenders, is simply more of everything.

The administration’s formal commitment to permanent, promiscuous intervention was preordained. Secretary of Defense William Cohen admitted: “When I first took over, I said everything is on the table for review, except we are going to keep 100,000 people in the Asia-Pacific region—that is off the table.” In short, the Pentagon conducted a supposedly searching review that ignored the most important issue.

The Pentagon’s 1998 report envisions an American security interest in virtually every East Asian country. Naturally, DOD lauds such traditional alliances as those with Japan and South Korea. It also endorses military ties with Laos and Mongolia, countries with no conceivable relevance to U.S. security.

The administration says the presence of U.S. troops is necessary only for “the foreseeable future.” But if the end of the Cold War, the collapse of hegemonic communism, and the dramatic growth in the strength of friendly democratic and quasi-democratic states throughout the region aren’t enough to warrant meaningful change, what would be enough?

The vague specter of instability has replaced the demon of communism as America’s enemy. Even in the midst of economic crisis, however, Asia is not ready to plunge in the abyss. And if it were, there is little a few thousand U.S. troops in Okinawa or South Korea could do about it. The internal struggles that pose the most serious threat to regional stability are beyond the reach of America, unless Washington is prepared to repeat its Vietnam experience several times over.

As for the threats of real conflict—the two Koreas and China/Taiwan—America’s allies are capable of maintaining military forces necessary to deter war. If that is a slightly less certain guarantee of stability, it is a far better one from America’s standpoint. If deterrence failed, the United States would not find itself automatically involved.

Some analysts privately, and a few publicly, believe that Japan poses a potential threat to regional peace. But Tokyo has gained all the influence and wealth through peace that it had hoped to attain 60 years ago through war. Moreover, the lesson of World War II remains vivid there.

The weakness of the administration’s case is evident from its bottom-scraping, kitchen-sink arguments that can best be characterized as silly. For instance, the Pentagon contends: “The presence of U.S. military personnel in the region multiplies our diplomatic impact through engagement with counterparts and the demonstration of professional military ethics and conduct in a democratic society.” However, U.S. training programs did not prevent abuses by the Indonesian military in support of the brutal Suharto regime, and the American military worked closely with a series of ugly, military-dominated regimes in South Korea.

Instead of enshrining the status quo, the administration and Congress should phase out U.S. commitments and deployments. To start, Washington should tell Japan and South Korea that it is time for them to defend them selves. Moreover, Washington should make clear that it will not intervene in a war between Taipei and Beijing. America does not have sufficient interests at stake to risk conflict with nuclear-armed China.

Rather than attempting to upgrade defense relationships with nations like Australia and the Philippines, the United States should rely on informal consultations and intelligence sharing. In cases like Laos and Mongolia, Washington should leave private individuals to build cultural and economic links.

In short, Washington should step back as local parties take on responsibility for their own security. Real leadership entails refusing to take on problems that belong to someone else.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.