A strategic rethink

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

President Bush's plan for a troop reduction in East Asia perturbs the leaders of several countries in the region, who hope that the move will not lessen the effectiveness of the U.S. presence.

in Singapore

FOR long, East Asia has played `host' to thousands of military personnel from the United States, which has shaped the policies of various governments, despite the general lack of enthusiasm among the people and the relatively new and rising tide of popular opposition to the `intrusive' American presence.

Now the troop cutback plan announced by President George W. Bush on August 16 could change the carefully nurtured strategic equation between the U.S. and its two East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. The extent and quality of the change is not clear yet. The process of the `realignment' and `reduction' of U.S. forces in the region has not been spelt out so far. However, the powers that be in the East Asian capitals tend to believe that Washington will not be inclined to let its military `power' in the region decline.

On August 17, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Security and Defence, Tony Tan, said he did not think that Bush's move "will, in any way, lessen the effectiveness of the U.S. military to operate in this part of the world". A view that sums up the general impressions of most leaders, including those who do not wish to see an interminable U.S. military presence in the region. However, strategic nuances differentiate the attitude of key players in East Asia.

SINGAPORE, which prides itself on being a non-ally of the U.S., helps maintain the U.S.' "forward military presence" in East Asia. A strategic Communications and Logistics Unit of the U.S. is located in Singapore, and it is in the backdrop of this that Tan said: "The presence of the U.S. military in South East Asia contributes to stability." He said that while negotiating "a strategic framework for defence" with the U.S., Singapore "will not be an ally" even as it seeks to deepen its engagement with Washington on security matters.

Singapore's ambivalent stance could be a response to the sensitivities of its neighbours, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. Both countries have voiced their reservations about Washington's long-term strategic and political interests in East Asia. Some time ago, Lee Hsien Loong, the then Deputy Prime Minister and present Prime Minister of Singapore, speaking to Frontline, said his country was protective of its "independent" foreign policy.

As a result of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War, the U.S. military's "forward presence" in East Asia and contiguous maritime areas, especially Japan and South Korea, has often been described by Washington as not merely for the "independence" of these countries.

Therefore, the demilitarised zone (DMZ), a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which divides the peninsula even today, is seen by the U.S. not simply as the last frontier of the Cold War. It is this that is being redefined to suit Washington's strategic rethinking that lies at the centre of the emerging engagement between the U.S. and its allies in East Asia.

JAPAN is Washington's most important ally in East Asia. Significantly, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made no secret of his intentions to stay on the U.S.' side on Iraq and in the Asia Pacific region, notwithstanding the growing antipathy of the Japanese people towards the U.S., which is considered the country's strategic `mentor' and `partner'. Koizumi and his allies think that a plenary review of the U.S.' role in East Asia is unnecessary until at least the resolution of the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes.

Not surprisingly, Bush's become-lean-and-lethal policy hardly affects Washington's strategic footprint in Japan. Bush said that in North East Asia, "we are working with our strongest allies to restructure our military presence and command structures, while simultaneously improving capabilities in the region". Shorn of jargon, the statement deliberately deflects attention from the realities on the ground. The formulation implies that the U.S. is leaving the door open for downsizing its military strength, estimated at about 50,000 troops in Japan. While this can be done, the new strategy implies that, in consultations with Tokyo, "improving capabilities in the region" will apply not only to the U.S. but also to Japan. The joint U.S.-Japan research project on developing missile defence technology is an example of the strategy. Not surprisingly, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, told Frontline that "there are currently no plans to invite a third country" such as India "to participate in the U.S.-Japan joint technical research on missile defence".

FOR China, the U.S.' intention to place "advanced strike assets" in the western Pacific has near-term as well as longer-term implications. Will the assets include nuclear weapons, especially in the context of North Korea's nuclear programme and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive and preventive strikes? Of wider implication is the other aspect, as enunciated by the White House as follows: "The forward stationing of additional expeditionary maritime capabilities in the Pacific will enable prompt and effective military action both regionally and globally." The intentions of the U.S. to position sea-based "expeditionary capabilities" off the Pacific coast of East Asia, as an "additional" factor, are also in keeping with the `doctrine' of pre-emption. The major difference in this case is that these sea-based "capabilities" would be put to use not only in the East Asian context but also for other purposes elsewhere in the world. In this overall context, Bush's troop cutback plan has not become a critical subject in U.S.-Japan interactions at this point, although controversies cannot be ruled out when the specifics, impinging directly on Tokyo's interests, are discussed in the future. Japan's foreign policy experts, like Yutaka Kawashima, have at various times argued that the future of the Washington-Tokyo alliance will be determined by the events concerning the "regional flash points" - the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait in view of China's sensitivities.

While China made it abundantly clear that its interest in Taiwan would be of paramount importance, should external powers try to promote "Taiwan independence", the fact remains that Beijing and Washington are engaged in serious diplomacy across a range of bilateral and multilateral issues. John Mearsheimer, a noted "offensive realist" from the U.S., speaking at a meeting in Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies on August 25, said the U.S. "does not tolerate [any] peer competitor" and certainly "not the global hegemon". The U.S., he reckons, is a "regional hegemon" and the only one in that category. As the solitary regional hegemon, the U.S. is seen to be keen on preventing the emergence of any other regional hegemon elsewhere in the world. This reasoning should explain the assertive annotations that followed Bush's latest troop cutback plan.

South Korea, where the planned U.S. military reductions and realignments will be really evident, has in recent years played host to about 37,500 American troops. Of them, several thousands were pulled out from positions near the DMZ and sent to Iraq, ahead of Bush's August 16 speech. While there is a groundswell of opposition in South Korea to the idea of a continued U.S. military presence in that country, the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun is trying to negotiate the terms of the new American plan. In South Korea, as in Japan, the calculations have much to do with the country's perceived security needs in the context of North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes.

Unlike in the case of Japan, though, Taiwan is not a factor of the same magnitude in Seoul's perception of the rationale behind the U.S. military presence in East Asia. All the same, Seoul is understood to have expressed a desire to discuss the possibility of delaying the departure of American troops from South Korea. The U.S. is playing the pull-back game by holding its cards close to the chest. Besides downsizing, the U.S. will also relocate its remaining troops in South Korea within that country itself.

This is said to address South Korean sensitivities in densely populated areas and to ensure that the American troops are more "agile and flexible" with a greater lethal power than at present.

A critical aspect of the U.S. plan concerning Central and South East Asia is that Washington has already begun "working to establish a network of sites to provide training opportunities and contingency access, both for conventional and special forces". The bid for "a network of access

arrangements" acquires importance in the context of opposition from Indonesia and Malaysia to the U.S. move for a Regional Maritime Security Initiative. The U.S. has propagated this as a move to safeguard shipping along the Straits of Malacca, which has a very high density of international traffic, from possible terrorist strikes and even conventional piracy. A key poser is how the U.S. will play its cards to sustain the initiative over this move in the new overall context of readjusting the American profile in East Asia.

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