Time to Bring the Troops Home

Time to Bring the Troops Home

America's provocative military posture in Asia makes war with China more likely.


The United States is today virtually the only nation on earth that maintains large contingents of its armed forces in other people's countries. After World War II and during the cold war, the United States built a chain of military bases stretching from Japan and South Korea through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia to Diego Garcia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, England and Iceland–in effect ringing the Soviet Union and China with thousands of overseas military installations. In Japan alone, following the Korean War, there were 600 US installations and approximately 200,000 troops. There are still today, ten years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, some 800 Defense Department facilities outside the United States, ranging from radio relay stations to major air bases. To those unlucky enough to live near them (sometimes dependent on them for work or customers), these military outposts often appear less like "peacekeepers" than occupiers.

In East Asia, the United States maintains massive and expensive military forces poised to engage in everything from nuclear war to sabotage of governments that Washington finds inconvenient (for example, the government of former President Suharto in Indonesia, which in May 1998 the US government helped to bring down via troops its Special Forces had trained). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States still deploys some 100,000 military personnel and close to an equal number of civilian workers and dependents in Japan and South Korea. These forces include the Third Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Japan; the Second Infantry Division in South Korea; numerous Air Force squadrons in both countries (Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa is the largest US military installation outside the United States); the Seventh Fleet, with its headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, patrolling the China coast and anywhere else that it wants to go; and innumerable submarine pens (for example, White Beach, Okinawa), support facilities, clandestine eavesdropping and intelligence-collecting units, Special Forces and staff and headquarters installations all over the Pacific.

From approximately 1950 to 1990, the US government invoked the cold war to justify these so-called forward deployments–actually, in less euphemistic language, imperialist outposts. During the late 1940s, when it became apparent that the Chinese Communist Party was going to win the Chinese civil war, the United States reversed its policy of attempting to democratize occupied Japan and devoted itself to making Japan Washington's leading satellite in East Asia. The United States entered into an informal economic bargain with Japan: In return for Japan's willingness to tolerate the indefinite deployment of US weapons and troops on its soil, the United States would give it preferential access to the American market and would tolerate its protectionism and mercantilism. These were advantages the United States did not extend to its European allies or Latin American neighbors in the cold war.

Oddly enough, this policy is still in effect some fifty-four years after it was first implemented. In return for hosting 40,000 US troops and an equal number of dependents in ninety-one US-controlled bases, Japan still has privileged access to the US economy and still maintains protectionist barriers against US sales and investment in the Japanese market. The overall results of this policy became apparent in the 1970s and led to acute problems for the US economy in the 1980s–namely, huge excess manufacturing capacity in Japan and the hollowing out of US manufacturing industries. The costs for the United States have been astronomical. During the year 2000 alone, it recorded its largest trade deficit ever, of which $81 billion was with Japan. During the mid-1980s, Japan became the world's largest creditor nation and the United States became the world's largest debtor nation, thereby turning upside down the original assumptions on which US economic policies toward Japan were based. But neither the United States nor Japan made any changes in its old trade-for-bases deal, despite occasional and futile protests by US business interests.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of US elites committed to maintaining hegemony on a global basis, the sudden and unpredicted collapse of the Soviet Union in the period 1989 to 1991 was a disaster. They had to find some new justifications for their overseas presence, particularly in East Asia, where Japan's inherent power and the emergence of a commercially oriented China offered implicit challenges to the old American order. Among these justifications, one of the cleverest was the so-called two-war strategy, which requires the US military establishment to be able to fight two large wars on opposite sides of the globe at the same time. The beauty of this formulation is that it avoids specifying which nations might conceivably want to go to war with the United States and ignores the historical fact that in America's most recent wars–Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia–no second nation (on the other side of the globe or nearby) challenged it.

More concretely, Pentagon strategists have tried to find replacement enemies for the former USSR by demonizing North Korea and muttering ominously about China's successful transition from a Leninist command economy to a state-guided market system resembling the other successful capitalist countries of East Asia. Until June 2000, North Korea was routinely described as an extremely threatening "rogue state." Then, on the initiative of the South Korean president, the two Koreas began to negotiate their own reconciliation without asking for US permission. The possibility that North and South Korea might achieve some form of peaceful coexistence totally undercuts the main US rationale for a "national missile defense" and a "theater missile defense."

Regardless of which ventriloquist is in charge of him on any given day, George W. Bush shows no sign of comprehending these matters. In March, when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, last year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, visited Washington to ask for help in pursuing his country's rapprochement with the North, the newly designated "leader of the free world" rudely brushed him off. Korea policy has become a plaything of Congressional Republican mastodons, and the Bush White House seems much more interested in pleasing them than in the situation in East Asia. It is easy for the United States to attempt to bully both the North and South Koreas; it has been doing so since 1945.

China is another matter. No sane figure in the Pentagon wants a war with China, and all serious US militarists know that China's minuscule nuclear capacity is not offensive but a deterrent against the overwhelming US power arrayed against it (twenty archaic Chinese warheads versus more than 7,000 US warheads). Taiwan, whose status constitutes the still incomplete last act of the Chinese civil war, remains the most dangerous place on earth. Much as the 1914 assassination of the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo led to a war that no one wanted, a misstep in Taiwan by any side could bring the United States and China into a conflict that neither wants. Such a war would bankrupt the United States, deeply divide Japan and probably end in a Chinese victory, given that China is the world's most populous country and would be defending itself against a foreign aggressor. More seriously, it could easily escalate into a nuclear holocaust.

Since any Taiwanese attempt to declare its independence formally would be viewed as a challenge to China's sovereignty, forward-deployed US forces on China's borders have virtually no deterrent effect. The United States uses satellites to observe changes in China's basic military capabilities. But the coastal surveillance flights by our twelve (now eleven) EP-3E Aries II spy planes, like the one that was forced down off Hainan Island, seek information that is useful only in an imminent battle. They are inherently provocative and inappropriate when used to monitor a country with which we are at peace. The United States itself maintains a 200-mile area off its coasts in which it intercepts any aircraft attempting similar reconnaissance.

America's provocative military posture in East Asia makes war with China more likely because it legitimizes military strategies in both Beijing and Taipei as well as in Washington and Tokyo. Although the spy-plane incident may have provoked new caution in a few Taiwanese who fear becoming the battleground in a China-US war, it also emboldens those who advocate independence from China to continue fostering Chinese-American conflict as a cover for their own aspirations. Former President Lee Teng-hui's controversial visits to both Japan and the United States may be an attempt to do precisely that.

Virtually all mainlanders and most Taiwanese believe the United States is interfering in a domestic conflict. Taiwan has already insured that any mainland military attempt to take over the island would create an areawide crisis and thereby derail China's effort to develop through peaceful commerce. So long as Taiwan does not reopen the civil war by unilaterally declaring its independence, the mainland is content to let it govern itself–as it has demonstrated through more than fifty years of Taiwanese-US provocations.

The primary focus of China's foreign policy since its shift to a commercial strategy of economic development has not been on expanding its territory or influence at the expense of other nations but on settling old, irredentist claims to places that Imperial China, whose last dynasty ended in 1912, allegedly lost because of foreign activity. The primary ones in question have long been (1) Hong Kong, which was returned to China in 1997; (2) Taiwan; (3) various island groups in the South China Sea, which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is handling; and (4) Tibet, where China's claims are spurious.

The economic trend is mitigating all these problems, if only the US military will give it time to work. In contrast to all other East Asian countries, China has welcomed foreign direct investment, which currently amounts to about $350 billion. Only Britain, where foreigners have invested $394 billion, and the United States, where they have invested $1.1 trillion, outrank China on this score. Moreover, China has moderated its regional disputes with countries like Vietnam, whenever pursuit of them seemed incompatible with its widely popular economic strategy. Only in Tibet are China's irredentist claims seriously overstated, but this area is hostage to China's fears of future confrontations with a nuclear-powered India and the unstable Islamic world of Central Asia.

Still another reason why US forces say they must remain in Asia, particularly in Japan, is that Japan itself may once again become a threat to its neighbors. This argument is increasingly distasteful to Japanese, who point out that paying for American bases on their own soil as watchdogs is tantamount to paying for their own jailers. The Japanese also argue that their past history and current demographics (16 percent of the population over 65 and a below-replacement birthrate) make revived militarism about as likely as revived slavery in the United States.

In lieu of concrete security threats in East Asia, some US strategists have put forth the argument that if so much as a single American soldier is brought home, the result will be "instability." Actually, there has been a good deal of instability in East Asia despite the American military presence, from the economic meltdown of 1997 to the most serious cases of nuclear proliferation in forty years in India and Pakistan and the destruction of East Timor by American-trained Indonesian forces while the United States looked on.

The US government often argues that it must remain in East Asia because there are no regional organizations comparable to the European Union that could deal with problems there. The truth is that the United States has a long record of undercutting any Asian efforts at regional organization, and its military presence interferes with the functioning of the most promising one, ASEAN.

Why, then, does the United States continue to maintain cold war structures in East Asia when it knows they are no longer relevant to actual conditions in the area? First and above all, money. The Japanese government pays more generously than any other "ally"–about $6 billion a year–to house and supply US Marines and other forces, mainly in Okinawa. It does this partly to keep the American troops as much as possible away from the main islands, where politically potent voters could and would demand their withdrawal. The Japanese hold deep-seated attitudes of superiority toward the Okinawans, just as they do toward other peoples they colonized, including Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese. The fact that the United States goes along with this openly discriminatory policy–75 percent of the American facilities in Japan are located in Okinawa, which comprises only six-tenths of one percent of Japan's land area–is morally catastrophic for its claims of being in East Asia to promote democracy and stability.

Former commander of Marine forces in the Pacific Gen. Carlton Fulford wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette of July 1999, "In 1996, estimates for the plant replacement value (PRV) of Marine Corps infrastructure on Okinawa was $7.5 billion. The PRV for III MEF [Third Marine Expeditionary Force] assets on mainland Japan exceeded $2 billion…. Finding replacement sites for our current Japanese facilities…would prove fiscally unsupportable." General Fulford's argument is similar to that of the former Soviet armed forces who wanted to remain in East Germany after the Berlin wall was torn down. They could not afford to go home, and no other country in the region would take them.

Another reason US armed forces want to stay in East Asia is that they like it there. They live well–better than they could in the United States. The officers' clubs, family apartments, swimming pools, private beaches, gymnasiums, churches, restaurants, golf courses, baseball diamonds, bowling alleys and slot-machine parlors–all run by the military and beyond local legal jurisdiction–are powerful incentives to stay on.

The downside of the US military presence is an endless series of raped, battered and sometimes murdered women and girls; armed forces drunk drivers involved in hit-and-run accidents; environmental pollution; the noise of warplanes and helicopters perpetually interrupting daily life (near some bases, such as Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, sounds exceed 70 decibels an average of 161 times every day); and the seemingly monthly apologies by ambassadors for "tragic accidents" that US citizens would not tolerate in their own society.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States needs a brand-new approach to the use of military force. He stresses that the cold war is over and that a leaner, more high-tech military, plus a go-it-alone national missile defense, is needed for the kinds of challenges that the world's self-proclaimed "indispensable nation" faces in the twenty-first century. Does he mean it? So far, the actual foreign policy actions of the Bush Administration, particularly its surly indifference to peace in Korea and its baiting of China, suggest not a fresh approach but a loss of prudence and a risky indifference to the opinions of other nations.

Unless the Bush Administration really wants another war in Asia, it should convert its treaties there into equitable state-to-state alliances without any permanent American military presence. This should be done because forward-deployed US forces have themselves become militarily provocative and one of the main sources of instability in the area, and because the moral consequences of the American military enclaves are destroying any basis for future trust and cooperation among the peoples involved. If we recognize that the cold war is over in Europe, why not accept that it is also winding down in East Asia? Moreover, if we do not dismantle our satellites in East Asia in an orderly manner, they will surely rise up against us, as the former Soviet Union's satellites did in Eastern Europe.

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