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US Defense Strategy Changes Focus

Reprinted from the Taipei Journal, Sept. 22, 2000
By Floyd Ciruli

Americans are shifting their defense interests to Asia, which is creating a new bipolar strategy and causing the rethinking of many old alliances and doctrines. The last decade has made clear that the Asian economy is critically linked to the world economy, as evidenced through its alternately stimulating and dragging effect on markets and trade.
  • Asian tigers helped fuel the boom of the early 90s but their currency collapse triggered the financial crises of 1997.
  • The jump-start of the Chinese economy and its potential, albeit tenuous, to become a world-class trading partner.
  • The end of Japan's long growth curve and its surprising decade of recession.

While the economic power of the Far East has been long known, what is newly visible is the shift of western and especially America's defense strategy toward Asia.

End of Cold War
Since the end of the Cold War and its European focus, American public concern about Asia has increased. When asked in a Fox News Survey who represents America's greatest military threat in 1999, China replaced Russia (USSR) as the top position. This movement in public opinion corresponds to the American foreign policy establishment having made management of relations with Communist China a policy priority.

Cold War is Over:
Who is a New Threat?
Open Ended
China 39%
Russia 20%
Iraq 9%
Iran 2%
Other 9%
None 3%
Not sure 18%
Fox News April 1999
N921 national voters

Recent events give Americans good reason to turn their attention East.

  • The collapse of the Indonesian oligarchy and the pressure from indigenous populations to devolve the archipelago.
  • China's militance concerning Taiwan reunification, including aggressive threats backed up with a growing military capability
  • The continued development and export of missile and nuclear technologies by North Korea and China.

The shift of military interest to the East and creation of a more bipolar strategy includes concern about the Indian Ocean: India's hostility toward China, its independent nuclear arsenal and confrontation with nuclear-armed Pakistan makes the subcontinent a global hot spot.

New Relationships and Defense Doctrines
These changes offer opportunities for new relationships with former allies and adversaries and require reevaluation of long-held doctrines.

  • Singapore is welcoming the American fleet, even building a new dock for aircraft carriers while Thailand is in joint exercises with the U.S. Marine Corp. The first Philippine and American joint exercises have been scheduled since the abandonment of the Subic Bay Naval Base.
  • Vietnam is slowly emerging from its xenophobia and old-line socialist economy. Although it is unlikely to welcome the U.S. Marine Corp back into DaNang, it is a less hostile place for American interests.
  • Taiwan's revolutionary change in politics this spring resulted in its first opposition government. Its politics now have a more indigenous and independent cast, hence more threatening to China. But as a more democratic and still prosperous nation, the old formula of one nation/two systems becomes harder to apply.

The welcome reduction of tension on the Korean peninsula also requires rethinking of military strategy as America's role as guarantor of peace becomes less certain. And the long U.S. and Japanese strategic partnership will be transformed given these new forces.

The recent Okinawa G8 conference highlighted these trends, including local opposition to American troops stationed in Japan, Russian proposals concerning North Korea's missile program and a lively debate on America's proposed missile defense system.

The China and Free Trade
Concern about China is driving America's changing strategy. As the last major authoritarian communist dictatorship left, China's elites stand alone in the world of great powers trying to justify their party monopoly. Many observers suggest the rise of militant nationalism toward Taiwan is an effort to distract its citizens from the hardships and dislocations of the economic transformation. Foreign policy achievements such as Hong Kong reunification provide some legitimacy for the regime as its justification as the vanguard of the proletariat in a socialist economy becomes irrelevant. Clearly the leadership will tolerate no public dissent. The Tienanmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the Falun Gong repression today show the regime will ignore world opinion to protect its authority.

The recent debate over permanent trade status for China highlighted the ambivalence Americans feel toward China. While a slight majority of the public in most polls supported the concept of trade as a mechanism to reform nations such as China, when asked specific questions about China's human rights record or its labor practices, public opinion shifted to opposition of free trade with China.

Although there remains a bi-partisan elite consensus that trade is the best tool for building democracy, there are significant opposition forces. Groups on both the American left and right have converged to oppose free trade and China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Ernesto Zedillo, who is credited with finally bringing democracy to Mexico's moribund party system, articulated the human rights alternative when he rejected the "theories that say a country can prosper only with economic freedom."

Taiwan and Military Action
The background of American military commitment to Taiwan has been little discussed in recent years except in the context of the importance of America's relationship with China. Not surprising, recent national polls show less than majority support for military action to protect Taiwan. A new survey question asked of voters in Colorado's fastest growing suburb illustrates the larger populace's opinions on dealing with a military crisis in Asia.

Colorado opinion is scattered among a range of possible responses on the question of defending Taiwan from military attack by China. About a third (37%) of Douglas County voters believe the U.S. should defend Taiwan against China either directly or in an alliance. Another 21 percent support providing weapons. But a quarter (23%) favor avoiding all military action and prefer either condemning China or doing nothing at all. Seventeen percent haven't formed an opinion.

Question: Communist has told the island of Taiwan that unless it begins negotiations to unify with the mainland, China will use force to take control of the island. What should America do if China attacks Taiwan with military force?

Women are much less supportive than men of taking military action to defense Taiwan. Sixty-five percent of men favor taking some military action (i.e., use force or provide weapons), compared to only 51 percent of women. Democrats (28%) and Republicans (29%) are similar in their support for the U.S. to defend Taiwan with an alliance, but more Republicans (14%) than Democrats (5%) support using American troops as a first resort.

There is considerable research on the conditions that must exist in order to justify the use of force, including a clearly indenified enemy guilty of serious acts against American interests and allies. So far, little has been done by American policy makers to justify use of military force. Hence, while Americans now see China as the major threat and Taiwan as the flash point, they do not have a commitment to use force if necessary to stop military agression.

Bipolar Commitment
U.S. opinion makers oscillate between exaggeration and underestimation of Asia's importance to American interests. In the late 80s, Japan's economy was expected to dominate the 21st century. Today it is largely ignored, even though it remains–after a decade of slow or negative growth–one of the largest economics in the world. Similarly, although analysts declare China will have super state status within a decade, they may be overly aggresive, which will lead to excessively high expectations and a likely resultant fall off in interest.

But, due to the economic importance, the large number of tension points and the growing domestic political constituency especially in America's Pacific rim states, China and other Far East Asian nations now have an important and urgent roll in American policy making. This bipolar outlook is the defense news at the start of the decade.

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