U.S. Alliances in East Asia: Internal Challenges and External Threats

William Breer

May 20 marks the 60th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S.-Japan alliance by Japan’s House of Representatives. While the alliance is a bilateral arrangement, it has had a significant impact on Asia as a whole and is regarded by other nations as a key part of the regional security structure. The following is a brief survey of the treaty’s role in the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. It also demonstrates that the tensions currently confronting the U.S.-Japan alliance are not unique, but in fact have been faced by various bilateral alliances in the region; some have been resolved successfully and some have not.

Most experts believe that the series of alliances the United States created after World War II was one of the most astute and far-sighted acts of diplomacy in history. The alliance with Japan laid the foundation for reconciliation between two enemy nations and the groundwork for the reconstruction of a nation whose industrial power, infrastructure, and morale lay in shambles but which rose to become the world’s second largest economy. The alliance played a key role in the Cold War by allowing the United States to cover the USSR’s eastern flank and demonstrating to China and North Korea that we would defend our interests and those of our allies in East Asia.

The arrangements with Japan provided a base from which the U.S. was able to defend its Republic of Korea ally from aggression by the North. Although the Korean War ended in an armistice—not a victory for the ROK, U.S., and their allies—without the use of facilities in Japan the peninsula could have been lost. Another plus was that American protection relieved Japan of having to acquire an offensive military capability, possibly including nuclear weapons. This reassured Japan’s neighbors that it would not again become a threat to their independence.

The result has been five decades of peace in Northeast Asia without a serious arms competition and remarkably few serious threats to the peace. This, along with the stimulus of Korean War procurement, enabled Japan to devote its resources to economic development which resulted in a previously unimaginable economic expansion and improvement in living standards. The ROK, Taiwan, and later China, piggy-backing on Japan’s success and partaking of Japan’s foreign aid and investment policies, replicated Japan’s experience and delivered even faster rates of economic growth and prosperity to their people. None of this would have been possible without the American alliance system and the stability it provided throughout the region. The American presence in East Asia has been reassuring to allies, and our naval and air deployments beyond the region have played a major role in protecting the key energy trade routes through the Malacca Strait and Indian Ocean.

American alliances around East Asia

While the results have been good and generations of alliance managers on both sides can take considerable satisfaction in their accomplishments, the presence of foreign military bases in sovereign countries is not necessarily a natural phenomenon. Many Americans feel that we are motivated by altruism in undertaking to defend other peoples and that our actions are benign. But this view is not necessarily shared by citizens of host countries, many of whom view the American presence as an extension of the occupation in the case of Japan, an intrusion on sovereignty, or as a nuisance. These feelings are reinforced by a complex legal regime governing our bases and serious incidents (rape, hit-and-run accidents, etc.) involving American personnel. At the same time, as the base arrangements provide significant economic benefits for local populations there are some who welcome their presence. The policies of the new Hatoyama government reflect these contradictory views.

Governments have responded to these issues in different ways. In Japan we have developed mechanisms for dealing with problems and have accumulated a great deal of experience in working together. As a result Japanese citizens have tolerated a foreign military presence remarkably well. This may be a historic first. The leaderships of both nations realize the important role that the alliance plays in maintaining stability in East Asia and have striven to protect it.

In the Philippines, where we had maintained major naval and air facilities for many decades, a combination of domestic political pressure, the destruction of one base by a volcanic eruption rendering it unusable, and a strategic reassessment in Washington resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but the continuation of the defense treaty. In recent years, small numbers of U.S. military advisors have assisted the Philippine armed forces in countering Muslim insurgents in the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.

This was followed a few years later by the New Zealand government’s refusal to allow port calls by U.S. Navy vessels, as clearly envisioned in the ANZUS treaty, without a prior finding by the prime minister of New Zealand that the ships in question were not carrying nuclear weapons. This was contrary to our long-standing policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons aboard our ships and put at risk our arrangements with Japan. The result was a suspension of our defense relationship with New Zealand and strained relations with this ally for a number of years. When the U.S. Navy revised its “neither confirm nor deny” policy our defense relationship gradually improved. However, as Secretary of State George Shultz stated at the time of the break in 1986, “We remain friends, but we are no longer allies.”

We do not have a security treaty with Taiwan and do not maintain forces on the island. We sell arms consistent with the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act and U.S. policy toward Taiwan has assured the people of Taiwan and other countries in the region that the United States takes the security of Taiwan seriously and that only a peaceful, non-coercive resolution of the political issues across the Taiwan Strait would be satisfactory.

Under our mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea we deploy sizable ground and air forces to the peninsula to backup ROK defenses in the event of aggression by North Korea. We have made clear to the North that the American commitment to the defense of South Korea is rock solid, and the peace has been maintained. While the U.S. posture has effectively deterred North Korea from a frontal attack, it has not prevented North Korea from mounting provocations, ranging from the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, through the tree-cutting incident in 1976, to the recent apparent sinking of an ROK warship. The biggest challenge posed by North Korea is its determination to acquire deployable nuclear weapons which would threaten U.S. interests throughout East Asia, potentially pose an existential threat to Japan, and create a proliferation problem of vast proportions. Our treaty relationships with Japan and Korea, and our many decades of experience working together, have greatly facilitated our cooperation on this issue.

From time to time, base issues (one of our major bases is in the center of Seoul) and occasional incidents caused by American personnel have aroused latent nationalism among the people, which has in the past resulted in large scale demonstrations, strains in our relations with the host government, and pressure to relocate our facilities. That we are making necessary adjustments to our deployments without significantly reducing our support for the ROK or the effectiveness of our deterrent is a credit to the common sense and foresight of Korean and American officials, many of whom have devoted entire careers to the management of the defense of the ROK.

Australia has been a valued ally in a large number of military operations in which the U.S. has engaged over the last fifty years, despite periodic internal opposition to American policy.

Australia and Southeast Asia have been direct beneficiaries of America’s alliance structure. While Australia is a member of ANZUS it has never become a platform for large scale American deployments. It has a keen interest in the stability and economic well-being of Northeast Asia because of its enormous and profitable economic ties with the region. It is also a beneficiary of American attention to the sea lanes to its West and North on which it depends for the bulk of its international commerce.

What about the future?

Despite periodic outbursts of opposition to nuclear ship home-porting or other aspects of the U.S. deployment in Japan, support among the Japanese people for the security relationship has remained at a remarkably high level. As a result the U.S. has had a relatively free hand in the use of our facilities and in the deployment of forces there. Generations of Japanese leaders have cooperated with U.S. security needs. These include a contribution of $13 billion in support of the first Gulf War, the dispatch of ground forces in support of our operations against Saddam Hussein, and generous foreign assistance to many places in which we have a strategic interest, including Afghanistan. Japan has also for the past 25 years made major contributions – $4-5 billion per year – to the support of U.S. forces in Japan. Who would have imagined 60 years ago that there would be significant U.S. military facilities in Japan in 2010?


The planned relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has posed major political issues for both Japan and the United States. Okinawa is host for the majority of U.S. forces in Japan and has endured the lion’s share of the impact of foreign bases. Under considerable local pressure, Tokyo and Washington in 2006 reached an agreement to move the noisy Futenma facility from a densely populated area in central Okinawa to a sparsely populated region in the north. But the new Japanese administration, which took office in September 2009, ran on a platform calling for the removal of the facility from Okinawa. The U.S. side has been persistent in insisting that the agreement be implemented as it stands and relations have been seriously strained for more than half a year. But after much internal debate the Prime Minister has agreed that the original plan must go ahead.

The decision to attack Iraq in 2003 and the sloppy execution of the war called into question American judgment and leadership. Uncertain progress in Afghanistan has compounded this. Neither of these has significantly weakened Japanese support for the alliance, but these creeping doubts, coupled with an increasingly inward-looking Japanese public, have helped create an era in which American strategic assessments and solutions will be viewed with greater skepticism. Another serious incident involving U.S. military personnel would put further strain on the relationship. This is not to say that we cannot cooperate on a wide range of issues, but such cooperation will require higher level USG attention and a willingness on both sides to listen more attentively to the other’s point of view. On the Japanese side, it will require the development of greater expertise among its political leaders and greater awareness among the general public of the changing environment. The increasing economic, military, and political importance of China demands that our two nations work together to assure a successful outcome in Asia.