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Is there an Upside to the US Military Presence in the Southeast Asia?

By Jean Perier – New Eastern Outlook – 30.12.2018 

As of today the Southeast Asian and Asia-Pacific region have found themselves at the center of a complex international process of establishing a new regional architecture. As states carry on fighting for control over strategic sea routes that run across the region, numerous security and transitional threats would appear seemingly out of the blue.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is trying to exercise as much influence over the region as it possibly can, even in spite of the fact that over the past decades the influence that Washington exercises in Southeast Asia has significantly diminished. Speaking about the evolution of the US approach to Southeast Asia in the post-bipolar period of global composition, it should be noted that the initial goal of containing the spread of communism that Washington used to pursue has evolved into attempts of ensuring American military and economic dominance in this part of the world. These days the US couldn’t care less about communism, as it’s dead set on opposing the rise of China and Russia and their regional allies. Washington’s new approach to its global strategy became evident after the release of America’s National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review, in which China and Russia were designated as primary geopolitical opponents of the US.

To achieve these goals, the Trump administration would concentrate its efforts on creating a 400,000 man strong force in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that at least 50 large military bases across the region remain fully operational at all times. It goes without saying that the absolute majority of those are located in Japan.

Among the tools that allow Washington to advance its agenda in the Asia-Pacific region are large carrier strike groups. For the first time since the days of WWII, the Pentagon keeps a total of two carrier groups stationed in the Western Pacific. Additionally, the US Air Force would use strategic bombers on patrol duty over the Pacific, as Washington believes this practice to be a good demonstration of force.

The Pentagon is also actively deploying its anti-air capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, thus provoking an arms race across the region. At present, it has 20 ships capable of bringing down both missiles and aircraft, two THAAD batteries, three PAC-3 missile battalions along with five mobile radars stationed in the region.

To ensure its primacy in the region, Washington would place a particular emphasis on expanding its cooperation with Japan and South Korea. This results in those states holding an ever increasing number of joint military exercises, with their total exceeding 30 large military games over the last 18 months.

However, as inter-Korean relations begin reaping results of goodwill shown by both Pyongyang and Seoul, along with the progress that Russia and Japan have made in resolving their territorial disputes, Southeast Asian political analysts have begun discussing the issue of Washington maintaining such a leviathanian scale of American military presence in the region and the rationale behind it.

As for the prospects of a continuous US military presence on the Korean peninsula, it’s being addressed by China that which recently began insisting on the complete withdrawal of US armed forces from South Korea as a precondition for the complete denuclearization of the DPRK. Chinese authorities are persistent in convincing Pyongyang that this should be the first demand made, since there will be no way to force Washington into leaving once a peace treaty is signed. In turn, Washington is pursuing the goal of maintaining as many troops in South Korea as possible, as those remain an important element of its China containment plan.

As for the US military presence in Japan, the public pressure applied by various civil activist groups on Japanese authorities is almost palpable. Although Tokyo hasn’t faced a massive public uproar demanding the complete withdrawal of all American servicemen from the country, the number of civil protests demanding this course of action is increasing annually. In addition, the advances that Japan and Russia made in resolving their differences on questions over the Kuril Islands may vanish overnight, should it be announced that American servicemen are here to stay in Japan. As a matter of fact, this presence contradicts the terms of the 1956 agreement between the USSR and Japan, and ever since the day it was signed any further progress has been derailed by the presence of foreign servicemen in Japanese territory. Back in the day, this fact resulted in the USSR abandoning any discussions with Tokyo over the possibility of transferring a part of the Kuril Islands to Japan, as Tokyo signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Washington back in 1960. After all, in accordance with this treaty, the Pentagon is allowed to build its naval bases all across the territory of Japan. Should it decide to build one on the Kuril Islands once they are handed over to Japan, it will trap the Russian navy in its harbors. It is quite understandable that Moscow will never allow this scenario to occur.

To get a better understanding of this deadlock, it is enough to recall the Caribbean crisis of 1962 and the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. Back then, Washington reacted vigorously to Moscow’s attempt to create a direct military threat to the United States in the immediate vicinity of its borders, which brought the world toward the brink of WWIII. So what reaction should we expect from Moscow should Washington build a naval base on the Kuril Islands? Therefore, without Tokyo demanding the Pentagon to pack up and leave, no further progress in the disputes that exist between Russia and Japan can be achieved.

Of course, both Moscow and Beijing in their approach to the question of the lingering US military presence in the immediate vicinity of their shores are driven by their strategic interests. This means that Beijing is going to use any leverage it has to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for a US withdrawal, while Russia would never go as far as to consider handing over the Kuril Islands without Japan sending American servicemen home.

As for the position of today’s political elite of South Korea and Japan on this issue, it is clear that they follow the instruction of their overseas masters in addressing these issues, as both of these states have launched massive media campaigns to persuade their population that the presence of US forces is somehow not a bad thing. Washington has even given them cues as to what their media should advertise. In particular, they try to convince the world that:

  • a certain part of the population of South Korea and Japan is still supporting the strengthening of military cooperation with the United States.
  • the withdrawal of American troops will be accompanied by a substantial increase in defense spending. In particular, it is said that in South Korea in order to prevent the weakening of its combat potential, Seoul will be bound to spend no less than 30-35 billion dollars.
  • both Japan and South Korea will lose jobs should they decide to close US military bases. It’s stated that South Korea will lose more than 10,000 jobs that were created by the fact that American soldiers needed services that the Pentagon was willing to pay for. It’s estimated that Washington would spend 800 million dollars on those and thus the withdrawal of American troops is going to somehow affect the overall economic growth rates of South Korea. Should those media sources be believed, Japan with its massive industrial potential is going to suffer even greater financial losses due to the withdrawal of US forces from Japan.

Under these circumstances, the ruling political circles of South Korea and Japan have to decide whether the costs and the lost income associated with persistent tensions those two states have with their neighbors are worth the pay Washington is providing them with. It goes without saying that neither nation can hope to secure full political independence without sending American troops home. Moreover, the signing of peace treaties with their neighbors will eliminate the need to carry on the arms race that Washington initiated, as both Japan and South Korea are bound to buy expensive outdated weapons produced by the United States to the detriment of their national interests. For sure, the final word on this matter should not be left to the political elites of South Korea and Japan who are closely tied to Washington, but to the population of these countries, since they are being described as democracies by the Western media.

December 30, 2018 Posted by | Illegal Occupation, Militarism | , , , , | Leave a comment

Russo-Japanese peace treaty is doable

A new template is forming in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific – Russo-Japanese concord. The two regional powers with a troubled history are moving in the direction of concluding a peace treaty that could formally end their World War 2 hostilities and open a new page in their relations.

The negotiations are being handled at the highest level of leadership and, therefore, every single meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is invested with high importance. Both statesmen are known to be ardent supporters of a robust partnership between their countries.

The conclusion of a peace treaty is a pre-requisite to put the relationship on a higher trajectory and to realize its full potential. But both nations are also riding a wave of nationalism and when territorial concessions are involved, feelings run high.

Abe also has tryst with destiny insofar as he hopes to garner the historical legacy of getting back from Russia, the territories, which the former Soviet Union had occupied in the final period of World War 2 when Japan was staring at defeat.

Putin understands that an obdurate Russian stance on Kuril islands is impossible for any Japanese leader to accept. On the other hand, he also cannot ignore the Russian public opinion against territorial concessions. Besides, what complicates matters is that Japan is the US’ number one ally in Northeast Asia and Russia is apprehensive that any formula to settle the territorial dispute – which will have to be based on the joint declaration issued by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956 (which re-established diplomatic relations and stipulated the return of two of the Kuril islands Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty) may lead to an American military presence in a region where Russia has several highly sensitive bases.

Last September, Putin had made a novel offer of signing a peace treaty unconditionally by end-2018, but Abe found it unacceptable. Having said that, Abe acknowledged that Putin’s words showed a desire for peace treaty.

When they met last week in November 14, Abe reportedly came up with a proposal that Japan would not allow U.S. military bases on two islands off Hokkaido even if Russia returns them based on a 1956 joint declaration. (Ostensibly, Abe hopes to dispel Russian concern over the potential presence of US bases on Habomai and Shikotan islands.)

The Kremlin spokesman refused to comment but in a nuanced response made it a point to “confirm that Tokyo’s alliance obligations (with the US) are important as far as peace treaty talks go.”

It is hard to tell whether the ongoing Putin-Abe diplomacy is also a tango being staged by the two statesmen who have a shared interest in expediting a peace treaty, but who are also having to negotiate with each other and safeguard national interests as well as carry their respective domestic audiences along at the same time.

It is entirely conceivable that the two statesmen may even have set a timeline. In fact, Putin and Abe are meeting again in Argentina during the G20 in end-November. Tass reported today that Abe will also be visiting Russia in January. The accelerating diplomacy could well have something to do with Putin’s proposed visit to Japan in June to attend the G20 at Osaka. Don’t be surprised if Abe hopes to meet Putin on a full-fledged state visit in June.

Quite obviously, Russo-Japanese relations are deepening and what seemed an intractable territorial dispute may lend itself to resolution. One possibility could be that Japan regains sovereignty over the Habomai Islands and Shikotan, and the two islands might be turned into special economic zones.

Clearly, the US is the elephant in the room. Under the framework of the Japan-US Security Treaty, American troops in Japan can be stationed on Habomai and Shikotan if the two are handed over to Japan. Therefore, Abe’s proposal (that such a thing will not happen) also implies his willingness to maintain a diplomatic distance from the US.

Indeed, it could not have escaped Putin’s attention that there are incipient trends in Abe’s policies lately suggesting a degree of ‘detachment’ from the US – as apparent, for instance, from Abe’s moves to actively improve relations with China and sequestering it from the deterioration of Sino-American relations. The fact of the matter is that Japan is increasingly uncertain about the US intentions.

Having said that, Japan is still dependent on the security treaty with the US. Trust the US to interfere with the conclusion of a Japan-Russia Peace Treaty, given the long-term implications it would have for the American military presence in Northeast Asia.

On the other hand, a peace treaty would completely transform Russo-Japanese relations, which would also impact the Russia-Japan-China triangle. To be sure, a full-bodied partnership with Russia will vastly expand the strategic space for Japan to recalibrate its relations with both the US and China.

All signs are that Abe is working on a grand design. For a start, he has to contend with domestic opinion.  Abe’s big re-election as head of the Liberal Democratic Party in September (with 82% support) has put him on track to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister and to pursue his vision of Japan over the next three years in power (in what will be his last term in office), as well as to focus on the kind of legacy he will leave behind. Read a fine piece here by Japanese scholar Tomohiko Satake at the National Institute of Defence Studies, Tokyo – Should Japan continue to support the US-led international order?

November 19, 2018 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , | 1 Comment