US Security Strategy in East Asia

Michael McDevitt
Director, Center for Strategic Studies

November 6, 2002

During my talk, time permitting, I am going to cover the following four major topics:

Let's start with the historical and context.

The primary motivation for USG involvement in East Asia has been access to the markets of Asia. A case of the flag following trade. The officials of the USG as well as influential Americans have been mesmerized for almost 200 hundred years by the potential of Asia as a market for US goods.

From shortly after the revolutionary war, US merchants have wanted to sell American "manufactors" in China. If you think this is an old fashion thought, read the arguments from both the Clinton and Bush administrations that they made to Congress in support of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China—which was a prerequisite for China's WTO accession.

The only difference from 200 years ago is that instead of visions of selling millions of cotton shirts to Chinese, we now talk about the new American jobs we will create or preserve when we sell food products, services, and high tech. This vision is so strong it even made its way into the latest National Security Strategy of the US. Page 28 talks about trade with China creating more jobs for American farmers, workers, and companies.

This is not to say that other motivations over the past two centuries—imperialism, colonial responsibilities, missionary zeal, more recently the ethnic heritage of many Asian Americans—have not been important factors in our Asian strategy, but the bottom line has always been ensuring that the US had access to Asia for economic activity. This has been and will continue to form the foundational basis of our strategic involvement.

The crucial intellectual linkage between this longstanding vision and the Administrations security strategy in Asia, based on military presence and bi-lateral alliances, is the mantra that US military presence provides stability, and stability is necessary for economic growth, and economic growth is necessary to generate markets for U.S. goods. This reasoning is clearly laid out in the latest Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR) from the Rumsfeld DOD.

So as a result, over the years, all the various instruments of statecraft available to US statesmen and policymakers—diplomacy, military power, economic tools, informational—that were relevant or could be credibly employed, were employed to ensure that American economic interests had a place at the table of "China trade."

The primary motivation behind US statecraft, in all of its manifestations, over the past 200 odd years has been to be included, or perhaps more aptly put, to not be excluded, from East Asia. While there are exceptions, in general America's policy prescriptions for Asia have revolved around this simple objective.

In the early days, when the country did not have the power to unilaterally guarantee its place in East Asia, the strategic choice was to "partner" and cooperate with the British. About 100 years ago, our strategy took on a decided military dimension that remains to this day. Starting with the "Open Door Notes" and followed by Dewey's victory in Manila, the US began to take more of a leading role in the military affairs of East Asia. (Incidentally, remember that Dewey's Asiatic squadron was already in Asia, based in the British Colony of Hong Kong. An interesting factoid; the US Navy maintained a small East Asia Squadron in the region starting in 1832. This is significant since at that time the country didn't even have a "West Coast.")

The Open Door policy was our first public explication of a conscious strategy, which had as its ultimate objective preserving US access.

Central to over arching strategic approach has been the recognition that bases in East Asia were essential if military power was to be a regular feature of our Asian strategy. The distances across the Pacific were too great, the geographic expanse of region to vast, particularly when warships changed from a dependence on wind for propulsion, to something that must be carried and burned to generate power—coal and then oil.

One of Mathew Perry's primary objectives when his black ships "opened" Japan was to obtain a coaling station or a base on Japanese territory so that steamers sailing the great circle from San Francisco to Southern China, could refuel. America's decision after the Battle of Manila Bay, to annex the Philippines and engage in a very nasty two year fight with Filipinos seeking independence, was based on a realization that the Philippines offered a strategically central location from which US forces could play a more direct role in keeping China's door open.

Enough history—now three important geo-strategic points.

First, it is important to keep in mind that our 20-year legacy of involvement has always taken place within the context of a weak, or at least, a "land bound China." The rise of China that we are witnessing today is really unprecedented since serious Western involvement in Asia began in the early 19th century. We are entering into an era that is absolutely novel in our strategic experience. China is politically united, economically vibrant, and militarily able to defend its sovereignty. America's last experience with a rising power in Asia—the Japan of a hundred years ago—did not turn out well. (But that is a subject for another time.)

Second, today China is not only relatively strong and united, but it also militarily dominates the continent of Asia—consider for a moment the military potential of the largest neighbors with which it shares a common frontier. Russia is weak; Vietnam's military is a shadow of its former self and continues to degrade. India is focused on Pakistan, and in any event, prevented by the Himalayas from presenting a an invasion threat, (as are the Chinese.)

Commentators often mistakenly assert that the US is the dominative military power in Asia. This is wrong. The US and its allies—island, archipelago and peninsula nations are militarily dominant on the Rimland of Asia—the Asian Littoral, but not the mainland.

As a result a rough military balance of power exits between China on the continent, and the U.S and its allies, on the periphery. China cannot project power "off the continent" over water in any decisive way, while the U.S. and its allies are not able to credibly threaten the territorial integrity of mainland China. This balance could naturally be upset if one, or the other parties, set out to build a military capability that would allow them to achieve strategic results in the other's security domain.

Third, the U.S. is in Asia, but not "of Asia." This is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean separates the U.S. from our interests and our allies, but a blessing because we are seen throughout much of the region as an honest broker, with no territorial ambitions, and free of historic baggage associated with centuries of rivalries and antagonisms. As a result, most nations in the region feel comfortable in "embracing" our presence as a hedge against regionally assertive China, or a remilitarized Japan. (Although this later worry is on the wane.)

Post-Cold War Asian Security Strategy

Now, let me turn to the specifics of post-Cold-War security strategy in Asia. Fortunately, for any student of the topic, East Asia has been the beneficiary of more "official" security policy explanation than any other region. No fewer than four official statements of security policy have appeared --1990, 1992, 1995, and 1997 (two from the first Bush Administration and two from the Clinton years.) When you cull through them, as I have, certain common strategic objectives are found in all of them. Specifically:

As it happened I had a small role in the development of each of these and the one point I would make is that these were not simply glossy marketing pamphlets, but are genuine reflections of the broad direction of US security policy. These are the policy imperatives that each administration sought to achieve.

Contrasting Clinton and Bush (43)

I think it is fair to say there are a number of very important continuities between the Clinton and the Bush Administration regarding East Asian security policy. This should come as no surprise in as much as the Clinton Administration embraced many of the bedrocks of post-Cold War East Asian policy that they inherited from the first Bush Administration, which of course, were based on long time U.S. interests.

A comparison of the East Asia Strategy reports issued by DoD in 1990 and 1992 with those issued during the Clinton era, in 1995 and 1997 and Bush statements found in the NSS, QDR, the 2002 DoD Report to the President, illustrates these important continuities. (Since Bush (43) has yet to issue a specific East Asia Strategy Report, these documents are, along with speeches by senior officials, the best official source for policy.)

It would be surprising if there were not continuity across administrations because the fundamentals of US security policy in East Asia transcend administrations. It is important to remember these elements of continuity because the Bush foreign policy team came to office with the view that the Clinton administration had done a poor job with virtually every aspect of East Asian security policy.

I personally believe that may be too harsh a judgment. But to try to explain a context for today's policy let me run-down the Bush brief against the Clinton administration. It was judged as:

I present this critique, which does not acknowledge many of positives accomplishments of the 8 years of Clinton, without much nuance in order to provide a way to contrast different policy approaches that have been put in place by the Bush Administration over the past two years. The best way to review them is country by country.

China and Taiwan

The Bush approach to China started out very different from the Clinton approach but now, two years on, is not very different in overall approach, in the sense it wants a stable non confrontational relationship—the exception being the Defense relationship which is still different in tone, process and long range thinking, than that of the Clinton era.

Remember during the campaign, Bush characterized China as a "strategic competitor" not as Clinton had done as a "strategic partner." That is no longer the case.

In retrospect, the turning point may have been the EP-3 incident, which initially based on Chinese miscalculation, deliberate misinterpretation of international rules regarding airspace and very assertive rhetoric, seemed to confirm the "competition" characterization. But due to the fact that the USG did not want to create a long term "hostage situation" it was willing to "turn the other check" toward China, and work out a face saving apology.

Subsequently, the relationship has steadily improved. It is now characterized by the White House as "candid, constructive and cooperative." (The Chinese only use constructive and cooperative.)

In the wake of the EP-3 the USG supported WTO entry for China, did not oppose Beijing being the site for the 2008 Olympics and significantly, the President traveled to China twice. As a result, diplomatically and economically, the relationship is on as good a footing as during the Clinton hay-day of "strategic partnership."

But, on the issue of long term security issues and Taiwan, there is still a big difference between Bush and Clinton. Recall for much of Clinton's eight years, the USG aggressively sought military-to-military engagement with Beijing. DoD was proactive.

The situation has turned 180 degrees. The Bush DoD team came to office very critical of military engagement for engagements sake, strongly endorsing Congressional restrictions put in place during the later Clinton years. Then the EP-3 incident happened. DoD terminated virtually all military contacts, and has only grudgingly begun to review a handful of military exchanges. The Chinese have become the supplicants, anxious to renew military to military relations (not necessarily a bad thing from my point of view.)

DoD's continued reticence springs from the realization that war with China over Taiwan remains a possibility. The Chinese have not renounced the use of force should Taiwan declare independence.

Meanwhile President Bush introduced "strategic clarity" regarding US intentions should China execute an unprovoked attack on Taiwan, by stating the "the US would do whatever it took" should Beijing attack. (This was not mere grandstanding, the year 2000 Chinese White Paper on Taiwan raises the potential of an attack for reason other than an overt provocation, it suggests that if Taiwan does not get on with reunification discussions Chinese patience might run out and Beijing would resort to force.)

The Bush Administration has subsequently made clear on a number of occasions that this new clarity regarding US intentions should not be construed by Taipei as a "green light" to go ahead and declare independence. The US has no intention of being manipulated into war with China by Taipei.

One other issue related to Taiwan is very different from the Clinton era. This Administration has been very open; some would say flagrant, regarding its military relations with Taiwan. Defense sales are the most topical, but they have also been the most forward leaning of any administration since Taiwan was de-recognized during the Carter years in terms of high level contacts, liaison visits and the development of a genuine military to military relationship. The Chinese have noticed and are not happy—see their December 2002 Defense White Paper.

Unlike either Bush (41) or the Clinton administration, this administration is willing to be more publicly open regarding nagging worries about what the rise of China may mean for stability (as the US perceives it). In the documents from DoD and the new National Security Strategy there are cautions that "Asia is emerging as a region susceptible to large-scale military competition"—and they are not referring to the India and Pakistan standoff, nor to the Korean peninsula, neither of which is "emerging." The NSS is being surprisingly candid when it says, "In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors…China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness…China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of greatness."

I say surprisingly, because in the wake of 9/11 Sino-US relations have been quite good. Keep in mind that the NSS was written after 9/11, so even while today's relations with China are "peaking" the administration is not willing to automatically predict that today's situation will obtain in the future.


The 2000 Armitage Report on Security Policy toward Japan provides as good an outline of the approach the administration is taking that one is likely to find. What the administration has, and is, doing includes:

The objective is for Japan to share more of the "risk" associated with being an alliance partner. That means Japan must be willing to actively be involved as a partner in the military sphere of action. In this sense, Koizumi's response in the make of 9/11, and subsequent success in getting Diet approval for Self Defense Force deployments is encouraged and applauded in Washington. (And, is judged a successful outcome of US policy.) Japan is actually doing things rather than merely offering rhetorical or financial support.

To be fair to the Clinton administration, this trend has been underway since the first "PKO" legislation passed in Tokyo in 1993.

What Bush Administration has done is to quietly encourage the trend. It speaks positively about it to other Asian countries; it assuages apprehension in the region by "dismissing" fears about latent Japanese militarism. Most importantly, the Administration has insisted that the Japanese deployments be either in the framework of the alliance or in a UN sanctioned operation such as E. Timor


Perhaps the biggest changes from Clinton to Bush has been toward North Korea even before the latest issues about North Korean nuclear programs.

Korea policy was the first big change from Clinton. In March 2001, ROK President Kim Dae Jung insisted on visiting Washington very early in the Administration to ensure Bush continued Clinton policy of engagement with North Korea. This turned out to be a really bad decision. First, "anything but Clinton" was an intellectual construct. Second, KDJ came off as lecturing the White House on NK. And third, no one either in Seoul or in the rest of the Administration appreciated the President's personal antipathy toward NK (KJI not fit to lead his country—willing to let people starve, etc.)

Before the latest headlines on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the Administration had settled on a policy that. Supported the agreed framework, but with a great deal of skepticism.

Said we are willing to meet anytime, anywhere, without precondition, but the topics of these meeting had to be comprehensive. Comprehensive in the sense that unlike the Clinton Administration, which focused on WMD and long-range missiles (the Perry process names for former SecDef Bill Perry's efforts in the wake of the Agreed Framework), the Bush Administration said the North Korea's conventional forces also had to be discussed.

Significant difference from Perry approach; Perry held that like it or not we have to deal with a despicable regime and not hold out for a regime change. The Bush Administration has been more outspoken about this "Axis of Evil" state, and would be, pleased if it collapsed tomorrow. Interestingly, despite its distaste for the Pyongyang regime, it has gone out of its way to take the use of force off the table (realistically in my view) in its attempts to eliminate WMD from North Korea. This is essentially the same premise as the Clinton Administration. The big difference being that it is not willing to talk directly with North Korea to achieve its disarmament objectives.

Of course, in the wake of the revelations to Assistant Secretary Jim Kelly, the "anytime, anywhere" offer is off the table.

The Bush interest on North Korean conventional forces (at least prior to the Kelly visit) was also very different from Clinton's. The Clinton view was that we have deterred NK's conventional forces for 50 years; there is no rush to solve this. First things first, focus on WMD.

Today what North Korea is apparently trying to do is force the Bush Administration back to the Clinton Administration's approach. Use the leverage of their WMD and missiles to garner concessions; something some in the Bush camp widely criticized before coming to office.

U.S. Force posture in Asia:

Finally, contrasting Clinton and Bush declaratory military posture there are elements of continuity and change. Clinton posture rested on

Bush is too much different today, but with a much more dire long-term outlook. Because of the rise of China the region gradually emerging as a regional susceptible to large scale military competition. As a result the 100 K is no longer a defacto ceiling on US presence in the region. In fact specific reference to that number is missing. Instead we have statements that call for:

Of course one other major difference from the Clinton years is that the forces in the region are engaged in the global war on terrorism, and Southeast Asia is a major theater in this conflict. Southeast Asia has the highest strategic profile among US strategic planners of any time since the end of the Vietnam War because of the large Islamic populations in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and because Singapore has been such a strong ally in this fight.


I don't have much time so let me quickly provide you with a prediction about the future. East Asian security at the dawn of the 21st century will be dominated by the six uncertainties:

(1) The rise of China and its relationships with the US in the region and with its neighbors. As a rising power China cannot be expected to acquiesce in the status quo if the status quo does not serve its interests. Since the US has spent the last 100 odd years focused on preserving an Asian status-quo, that did not exclude the US, deciding how best to preserve the today's status-quo—also known as stability—will be major preoccupation of US security planners for the next two or three decades. Beijing's vision of a "future security system" being marketed as "A New Concept of Security" is the antithesis of the US alliance-based approach. We are facing a competition of concepts about how best to provide stability in the region.

(2) How the U.S-China-Taiwan triangle will play out. Democracy in Taiwan changed everything! As long as both authoritarian governments claimed to represent all of China, but where militarily incapable of realizing that vision, stability existed. As we see today on Taiwan, democracy engenders a desire for self-determination.

We must assume that Beijing is serious about being willing to use force to prevent a de jure Republic of Taiwan. As the ultimate guarantor of Taiwan's security we are in tough spot. On the one hand, ensuring that Taiwan is not militarily cowed into reunification, and on the other, being careful not to be manipulated into a war with China by Taipei. That means no declaration of independence. That also means attempting to preserve the current uneasy balance across the strait until circumstances in China make some sort of political reconciliation with the mainland acceptable to the people of Taiwan.

In the meanwhile, US deterrence must be credible. The Taiwan Strait must remain a barrier not a highway.

(3) The future course of the Korean peninsula and its effect on US presence. Thinking beyond the current nuclear situation (the Administration says it is not a crisis), the most likely outcome is a move toward peaceful coexistence. Once that takes hold, and the risk of a DPRK surprise attack is deemed negligible; a major strategic change will have taken place in Northeast Asia. This will precipitate a major inter agency reevaluation of the proper mix of military capabilities needed to maintain stability in Asia.

(4) The future role of Japan in the region and the evolution of the US-Japan Alliance. With US encouragement, Japan is inexorably moving toward a more "normal" military role in East Asia. The only way that will be tolerable to other Asian countries in the region is if this move toward normalcy takes place within the context of the US-Japanese alliance. I believe that the ban against "collective self-defense," which is a policy interpretation, not a constitutional prohibition, will eventually be set aside, and Japan will attempt to play a more active role in contributing to stability in the region. How this will be perceived by China and both Korea's is dependent on Japan's ability to actually come to grips with its "history."

(5) The success of the democratic transition of Indonesia and its survival as a secular state. Secularism versus an Islamic state is an impending issue within Indonesia. Ironically, so long as Indonesia remains democratic in terms of its political processes this will be a close run issue. Whether TNI will emulate the military in Turkey, and adopt a role, as the ultimate guarantor of secularism is an open question. But so long as it is one plausible future, the US must realize that TNI is an institution that cannot be ignored. Given its track record, dealing with TNI is often difficult for Americans to countenance. But the reality is that it is the one institution that has the ability to hold Indonesia together. Its mission since the founding of the state is to keep Indonesia secular and united. As a matter of self-interest and the overarching priority of the war on terrorism, the USG is going to have to "engage" the TNI.

(6) Forestalling the development of terrorist cells in Southeast Asia. Culturally Islamic East Asia is largely associated with the archipelogic and isthmian nations of Southeast Asia. These are the states that the USG has traditionally considered its friends, and in some cases, its allies. Waging the war on terrorism in a way to preserve these traditional relationships is going to take sophistication and recognition that each situation will be unique, and will demand a tailored approach.

My time is up—time for questions.

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2002