As America continues its campaign to subdue threats of militant Islam, cells of Al Qaida are now quietly sitting out the Arab Spring, reducing their threat to the United States even further. Yet our decade long focus on diminishing threats in the Middle East has drawn our attention away from a much greater threat to our national security, that of an escalating and interconnected Asian economy. China’s regional political and economic power now challenges a cornerstone of America’s foreign policy, the regional stability provided by our omnipresent military. Ultimately, a weaker American military role threatens the very security that America’s multinational corporations counted on when they embarked on a historic transfer of wealth from America to the East during the past three decades.
At the end of WWII in 1945, the United States placed massive encampments both in Germany and in Japan which later became our forward bases to deter communism during the Cold War. After WWII, the U.S. along with Russia separated Korea into North and South. This action created war in 1950, after which we set up bases along South Korea’s DMZ. America’s dual military Asian front still includes 129 military sites in Japan, three quarters of which are located on the islands of Okinawa, and 117 military sites in South Korea.
America’s placement of troops in Asia, our successful containment of communism, the Soviets distraction in Afghanistan for a decade beginning in 1979, and China’s simultaneous opening of their economy to the West gave American capitalists the relative safety to flood the East with investments. America’s factories throughout Asia coupled with “free trade” policies in the West supported East Asia’s phenomenal growth and strengthened regional political ties that built an economic juggernaut with China at its hub. The subsequent rise of China to preeminence has created a magnet that is drawing Japan and both Koreas toward her future. Their shifting alliances from the West to the East are now building momentum to pull the ground beneath America’s Asian bases out from under us.
A political battle ensued in 2008 in Japan to close the flagship of America’s Japanese military bases, our military complex on the islands of Okinawa. Located 1,800 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, the islands of Okinawa were occupied by 110,000 Japanese forces in a battle toward the end of the WWII that ended in the death of 150,000 of its civilians in the bloodiest battle of the war. Afterward, to the resentment of the Okinawans, the United States built a military complex covering over 20 percent of the main island that continues to house over half of the U.S. military personnel in Japan to this day.
Resentment to America’s occupation of Okinawa has increased over the years and with Japan’s growing ties to the rest of Asia, support for America’s continued military presence is waning. Japan no longer requires our military for defense, now that it supports its own highly advanced self defense force of 250,000 with the sixth largest military budget in the world. Our negative cultural influences in Japan, including crimes, noise, pollution, and our nuclear footprint have also created growing animosity.
In 2008, the progressive wave that swept Barak Obama to power in America also placed Yukio Hatoyama in the seat of power in Japan. Born into a Japanese democratic family dynasty similar to America’s Kennedys, upon his election Prime Minister Hatoyama promised to move Japan away from an American centric focus to strengthen Asian ties. In his short term in office, he stopped support for America’s Afghanistan efforts and warmed relations with both Korea and China, recognizing the East’s future importance to the fate of Japan. One of Hatoyama’s main campaign promises was to close the American bases located in Okinawa. When he was unable to accomplish this critical goal, he resigned in 2009. However, his leadership represented a rising tide among the Japanese people toward the East.
In 1991, Japan opened normalization talks with North Korea by formally apologizing for its occupation from 1910 to 1945. And though Japan’s war crimes still affect her relationship with China, Japan is now China’s largest trading partner. Nonetheless, in August of 2011, China called Japan’s questioning of her “overbearing military build-up” irresponsible. China increased its military spending 12 percent this year to $100 billion. (At this rate of increase, China’s military budget would equal America’s in 15 years)
Like Japan, South Korea has claimed the United States as an ally since WWII. As North Korea has one of the world’s largest standing armies of 1.2 million men as opposed to South Korea’s 700,000, and as North Korea also has a substantial advantage over South Korea in offensive weapons, the United States has continued to be an effective deterrent. Yet South Korea is also becoming weary of our continued military presence.
After having been liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945 and after having repelled China out of its country in 1950, South Korea officially opened ties to Japan in 1965 and to China in 1992. After announcing its sunshine policy in 1998, South Korea significantly advanced its relationship with North Korea and has been re-orienting itself toward reunification of the peninsula ever since. While still an ally of the U.S., South Korea nonetheless has become the most active promoter of strong ties between Asian countries including China. Both countries have been aggressively investing in their mutual neighbor, North Korea. China holds enormous sway with North Korea, as 75 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China alone.
After establishing diplomatic relations in 1992, in just ten short years, South Korea advanced China as its number one trading partner in 2003, surpassing the United States. In 2008, the two countries announced their relationship as a “strategic cooperative partnership.” With South Korea’s aggressive Sino-shift, nationalists within the country are actively questioning America’s involvement. The Korean War is less prominent in their minds and they are resistant to America’s new terrorism focus. Most recently, South Korean citizens have opposed a naval base on the island of Jeju that allegedly will be a transit for U.S. warships opposing China. However, as recent as today, South Korean officials denied that the United States will use the base for an offensive purpose.
China seems to be disciplining South Korea into its fold. Over the past decade, skirmishes between North and South Korea have given each the opportunity to exert their dominance. After multiple provocations by North Korea prodded South Korea to take a more firm military stance in 2008, North Korea sank a South Korean Navy vessel in 2010, prompting the U.S. to hold joint naval exercises with South Korea in the contested waters of the Yellow Sea in response. North Korea then attacked a small South Korean Island in the Yellow Sea.
Instead of siding with South Korea over this incident, China rebuked her. Recognizing her growing interdependence with China, South Korea’s response to China has since been to press even harder for diplomatic and economic relations while giving lip service to the United States of her continuing need for military and diplomatic ties.
Ultimately, the path forward for South Korea, North Korea, and China is clear, albeit potentially rocky. China and South Korea are aiming for $300 billion in bilateral trade within four years and their trade is growing at 22 percent per year. Negotiations toward a free trade agreement are also ongoing. For peace, stability and prosperity of the region, South Korea and China will ultimately build a path through and including North Korea in trilateral agreement, eventually reuniting the two Koreas.
What do Japan and South Korea’s overtures to the rest of Asia mean to the United States? We may find that soon our bases in both countries that we used to extend the strength of our military and to provide political stability that multiplied our economic strength coming out of WWII and that of our trading partners, will no longer be political acceptable to either Japan or Korea. The era of our military proximity to China may end.
Yet we no longer use these bases to contain communist aggression. The Cold War is over and war with China is unlikely in the near term. Maintaining bases in Japan and South Korea as deterrents to war is costly, and bases for counter terrorism in such places as Indonesia, certainly do not call for such a large footprint. Our proximity to China and to a militarized North Korea does present a surprise advantage to any future enemy attack, à la Pearl Harbor. We do still have defense commitments both to South Korea and to Taiwan but what is the size footprint required for those diminishing needs?
We are in Asia to hold onto the remaining power we gained in WWII, yet China’s political and economic alliances have usurped the protective military measures that once bound the East to America. As China gains economic strength and pressures our commodity and trading relationships, protection of shipping lanes from our major trading partners to the United States will become a critical priority. That priority will likely require, however, a different mix of bases than we currently operate. As we develop a stronger military corridor, in the interim, U.S. interests in South East Asia will be well defended by its allies Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
While the East Asian region may benefit just as South Korea is now by keeping America as a counterbalance to any potential future China aggression, East Asia will certainly not allow the United States military to pursue any containment policy aimed at slowing China’s growth. America therefore needs to rethink its military role going forward in Asia with an eye on protecting our transplanted manufacturing that is vital to our economic and national security. However, the massive post war forward base mentality that is draining America’s military budget while no longer achieving earlier vital objectives is not in our nation’s best interest.