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U.S. Must Avoid Temptation To Shift Priorities Toward Asia

Kenneth Weisbrode
Defense News
30 April 2001

The trajectory of a new foreign policy never is easy to predict, but recent hints suggest the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush may be embark ing on a serious, and potentially dangerous, course - back to the traditional Asia-first foreign policy of the Republican Party.

From the late 19th until the mid-20th century, Republicans were considered less Eurocen tric than Democrats, despite their popular association with Wall Street and dollar diplomacy.

On balance, this perception survived World War II, when some Republicans argued for prioritizing the struggle against Japan. It became more acute during the battle between Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman over war aims in Korea, when the State Department, under Dean Acheson, consistently subordinated U.S. interests in Asia to those in Europe, and rejected (or at least limited) the popular, Republican belief that America's natural destiny was across the Pacific.

After the Korean War, Asia-first strategists remained strong in the Republican Party, but were more narrowly identified then as the China lobby, the highly influ ential backers of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan.

President Dwight Eisenhower, however, was no "Asia-firster." He forged a bipartisan, Atlanticist policy that lasted through the end of the century. Since then the Asia-firsters on balance have been rather quiet. Though critics in both parties occasionally accused Washington of paying too little attention to Asia, few charged that there had been too much. This soon may change.

In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a major review, to include everything from the nature of future threats to the structure and composition of the U.S. arsenal. In the middle of March he briefed Bush on its findings. Though the review has not been released to the public, the main arguments have circulated widely in the press.

These reports cite a shift in U.S. priorities toward Asia, fewer foreign bases, longer-range vehicles of power projection, which notably excludes the Air Force's F-22, and fewer traditional weapon systems for the Army and Navy, namely heavy tanks and aircraft carriers.

The new emphasis will be on smaller, more mobile forces that perform independently over greater distances. On the surface, this makes a great deal of sense. The U.S. military needs to be able to fight and win the next war, wherever it takes place. Rumsfeld seems convinced that it will happen in Asia.

Thus, much of the review's rationale also is based on a future military threat from China. The first problem with this rationale is its tendency to provide fodder to political groups committed to hostile policies toward China, or to those enamored with overly symbolic and self-indulgent demonstrations of U.S. strength.

They may use the review to spearhead a diplomatic transformation far more consequential than its Pentagon authors probably intend. Combined with a more parsimonious attitude toward foreign commitments in general, and toward those in Europe in particular, this shift likely would diminish resources for NATO and, paradoxically, reduce ground troops in Asia as well.

The impact on U.S. alliances and U.S. security as a whole would be considerable.

The second, related problem comes from the risk the shift poses to U.S. interests outside Asia. Barring a new war in Korea, the biggest headaches in the next 10 to 15 years will come from the Middle East, not East Asia. The usual threats - precarious oil supplies, missile proliferation and anti-Western militancy - will persist and probably worsen.

At the same time, an important strategic realignment will demand a sophisticated U.S. re sponse: Iran will re-emerge as the major regional power, perhaps the first among several second-tier nuclear powers with their own longer-range capacities.

The conventional forces that pose only a moderate threat to U.S. interests in this region soon will be a thing of the past. A strong American presence in Eu rope is critical to adjust to this environment and protect the se curity of both Europeans and Americans.

It is not clear how this can proceed if the United States dramatically shifts its focus to East Asia while closing bases, withdrawing troops and radically overhauling its military arsenal. Access arrangements, such as the one the United States has with Singapore, are no substitute for forward deployments.

Rejecting the traditional ends and means of deployments in the name of technological change sets defense priorities against diplomatic ones. Until the United States can perfect the ability to defend itself anywhere, anytime, its security will depend on political alliances that require a strong forward presence.

NATO will die a quick death if the U.S. commitment recedes as the alliance takes on new members; U.S. relations with Asian allies, namely Japan and Korea, will be strained severely if injected with a more acute, anti-China vocation.

There also is serious doubt about whether any of America's current allies could adapt their own militaries in time to work effectively with the vastly more advanced U.S. arsenal envisioned by Rumsfeld's review. All of this, claim the Asia-firsters, is secondary to the coming conflict with China.

But today's China is not the old Soviet Union. A powerful China in Asia would not pose a direct threat to the United States, provided China respects the sovereignty of its larger neighbors. In order to ensure that it does, the United States should maintain its troop strength in Asia, either in Japan or in a reunified Korea (after leaving Japan fully capable of defending itself).

Meanwhile, the U.S. response to Chinese assertion should continue to be one of accommodation. The model should be British reconciliation with a rambunctious United States in the Western Hemisphere in the late 19th century, not the U.S.-Japan falling out in the 1930s, or the British and French handling of Germany in the 1890s

The famous Chinese militarist, Marshal Ye Jianying, once gave us some good advice for winning the Cold War: "Draw the Russians out on a limb, then stand back and watch it break."

The Bush administration should keep that in mind as it ponders military reform. There is more to this than being able to win the next war. Also at stake is the entire worldwide framework of U.S. interests and alliances that keeps war from starting in the first place.

These broader aspects may be overlooked amid the melee over procurement budgets, congressional prerogatives and interservice rivalries that will erupt once Rumsfeld translates the review into specific directives.

Before that showdown begins, the Bush administration needs to present a clear picture of U.S. interests worldwide, and dispel the idea that it favors Asia to Europe. A more balanced approach to U.S. security should prevail over futuristic certainties.

Atlanticism (with a strong Pacific component) has served this country well for more than 50 years. To replace it with an Asia-first policy (with a weak Atlantic component) would be premature. The Bush administration should resist that temptation, and let MacArthur rest in peace.

Originally published in Defense News, 30 April 2001. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Weisbrode, Kenneth, "U.S. Must Avoid Temptation To Shift Priorities Toward Asia" Defense News, 30 April 2001.

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