U.S. Pacific Strategy Is Becoming Untenable

I recently returned from a teaching stint on Okinawa, one of the smaller islands within the Japanese Archipelago. During those nine months I saw firsthand how the United States is spending at least $60 billion a year.

I was not impressed.

Today United States foreign policy and military action seem less and less connected to national defense. It takes, rather, the appearance of an attempt to dominate or intimidate certain parts of the world. I say that the United States attempts to dominate or intimidate because these parts of the world are not as easily cowed as they once were.

At present China stands as the natural military, political, and economic, leader of Asia—as it did prior to European dominance in the nineteenth century. Yet, it is not the bogeyman that many claim. Sure, China is becoming more economically and politically powerful but that was inevitable with a third of the world’s population living within its borders.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy (March/April 2010) Drew Thompson, of the Nixon Center, laid out the reasons for why he thinks China is “not yet” a worldwide military threat. One could easily come away from the article thinking that China will never be the threat the Soviet Union once was—although that is what many supporters of the U.S. military-industrial complex would have you believe.

In short, Thompson argues that China’s military budget—which is less than a quarter of what the U.S. spends—does not appear geared toward world dominance. Instead it seems focused on protecting what China already has and building on it. Even Taiwan is no longer a serious military consideration, not because the Chinese fear U.S. involvement but because there would be no tangible benefit from such action. They are more concerned with protecting their existing global interests, which is why they recently engaged in anti-piracy operations off the African coast. China has invested heavily in Africa over the last decade.[1]

I read Thompson’s article while still on Okinawa and it resonated with me. I, unfortunately, could not poll the Japanese people myself since they are a very insular people and my Japanese is limited to “Hello” and “Thank you.” However, I suspect that if I could have spoken with them they would have overwhelmingly suggested it was time for the Americans to leave—a sentiment with which I hardily agree.[2] During all my time on Okinawa one persistent question kept swimming through my mind: why are we still here?

I posed that question to one of my colleagues and he replied that it was because of the Chinese threat to Taiwan and because of that “mad man” overseeing the starvation of North Korea. That same colleague spent the four-week break between the fall and spring schedule in Vietnam, a country whose fate forty years ago was allegedly dependent on the continued presence of the United States. Nothing I said about the dubious merits of the continued U.S. “occupation” of Japan seemed to dispel my colleague’s conviction that the world is a very dangerous place, and that the United States needs to project power around the globe in order to maintain U.S. national security.

Of course, it was not China or India that gave safe haven to the plotters of 9/11; and, the Taliban seem as unconcerned about the U.S. presence in Japan as they are now about the presence of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan. The Afghans know their history. From Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviets, these people have seen more brutal and effective fighting forces than the U.S. military; and, they outlasted them all. This is not to disparage the U.S. armed forces but, rather, to mock the mistaken belief that a war can be fought without breaking things and killing people—two very good reasons not to go to war at all unless it is a clear necessity.

So, where does this leave us? Well, you could be like the millions of people directly or indirectly associated with the U.S. military-industrial complex who blindly accept the proposition that the only way to defend one’s self is through military dominance, or we could come to a middle position.

Those of us jaundiced enough to see relationships between nations as not a simple question of good versus evil realize that it is a combination of diplomacy and deftly-applied force that makes a nation safe. The bully who walks into every saloon spoiling for a fight will find no end of takers, and will eventually meet his match. It is the prudent man who only draws when drawn upon. It is also this defensive posture that allows a man to enjoy the moral high ground. Survival, unfortunately, is not always enjoyed by the morally superior but it does help us sleep at night.

Why do I speak in these terms, as though foreign relations were some type of High Noon moment? The reason is because readers understand the idea of a man personally wronged and vengeful. They understand the idea of wounded pride. Although, there should be no direct link between personal affronts and international relations—at least not since the end of monarchy—we understand the vagaries of national pride. However, our naturally myopic self-interest often precludes us from understanding the pride of the other, a pride which equals our own.

By not understanding that China, India, and Japan—to name the big three in Asia, have an equally valid claim to pride of place we undermine our own security. This was not an issue when the British still ruled India, when China was in its communist infancy, or when Japan was still reeling from its atomic spanking. However, things are different now. China has joined the rest of the world in a building a capitalist state. India is on the road to building what can only be described as an Indian version of the United States. It may take a century for them to get rid of the caste system and to see women make social and economic gains equal to the West but it will happen if they continue on their present trajectory. Finally, Japan understands that national success is rooted in economic prosperity not military adventures—a lesson the United States seems yet to have learned.

As of this writing the United States will spend a combined total of $895 billion this year to maintain its global military dominance while the Chinese increase their military budget 7.8 percent to a total of $76.3 billion.[3] Doesn’t this seem excessive?

The United States must confront a simple truth: their military cannot be everywhere, all the time. The United States cannot continue to spend its national treasure to fight the imperial ghosts of the past. If it continues on this path it will not only end up alone in the world but very poor.

To correct the course of this national ship the first thing we could do is “bug out” of Japan. “But, we can’t do that!” go the incredulous replies. “North Korea will invade South Korea, China will invade Taiwan, the Japanese will go back to their militaristic ways, etc.”

These are all possibilities. Of course, it is also possible that Mexico might one day decide to take back the Gadsden Purchase and all the other land it lost after the Mexican-American War. They already, according to some, have an expeditionary force within the U.S. in the form of illegal immigrants—although many of these folks seem quite content to go home when the work dries up here.

Below are three problems with the argument that a U.S. presence in Japan keeps the region militarily stabilized:

 

  1. The return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was preceded by much hand-wringing that China would clamp down on Hong Kong’s free market and democracy. This did not happen, and China appears content to let Hong Kong operate as it did before. This seems to argue against the notion that China has military and political conquest as its primary goal.
  2. The threat that China poses to Taiwan has dissipated over the years as China has realigned its priorities toward economic development. The last decade suggests that China’s real concern is not Taiwanese independence but U.S. influence—think of U.S. fears in the 1960s about Soviet influence in Communist Cuba as a corollary.
  3. “Without a U.S. presence in Japan and Korea the North Koreans would stream across the DMZ and overwhelm the South Koreans!” So say the champions of the continued U.S. occupation of Japan. However, one could ask the question, what would the position of China and Japan be sans the presence of the United States? Would China really want a brutal communist dictator making his way south? Would China really invite such a skirmish on its own southern border, one that could lead to millions of Korean refugees streaming north? It is more likely that China continues to sit on its hands with regard to a rogue North Korea because it means the North Koreans are keeping the American military busy so China does not have to engage them directly—not that they would since they are one of our biggest trading partners.

 

So, we left Vietnam and they turned pseudo-capitalist; we left the Philippines and the Asian world did not fall like dominoes to the communist menace. What would happen if we left Japan and Korea? First of all China would have to engage North Korea directly because of its own regional interest in political stability. Second, the United States would be able to cut defense spending by over $100 billion a year. However, the most important result would be the signal it sent that the U.S. was ending its policy of defense through dominance. This would go a long way toward strengthening military partnerships around the world in order to address the real threat to civilized societies, mainly terrorist organizations and rogue nations.


[1] See Deborah Brautigam’s article “Africa’s Eastern Promise: What the West Can Learn From Chinese Investment in Africa,” Foreign Affairs (January 5, 2010).

[2] While I was in Japan Yukio Hatoyama was elected on a platform of reducing the U.S. military presence in Japan and a mayor opposed to the U.S. presence was elected in a northern section of Okinawa called Ginowan. This shows that my assumption about Japanese opposition to the American presence is valid. There was also a large protest of ten thousand people that recently gathered to show opposition to a U.S. base in the heart of Okinawa, a base that is seen as the source of much crime on Okinawa.

[3] Defense News, “China’s Defense Spending Growth Slows,” http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4527285.

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