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Soldiering out
Why American troops may eventually have to leave Asia

Star Treatment: Is there substance behind North Korea's new, improved style?

The Itaewon shopping district in Seoul has a deserted look these days. American servicemen are avoiding the place since an army doctor stationed in the capital was stabbed to death there in late June. Soldiers have been advised to walk in pairs for their safety. Recently, a U.S. Army general apologized after about 75 liters of a formaldehyde solution was dumped from a military base into the Han River. On Okinawa, meanwhile, some 25,000 local residents formed a human chain around the sprawling Kadena Air Force Base to protest the large American military presence on the Japanese island. Emotions have been running high ever since a U.S. Marine allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl.

At a time when many East Asian leaders are affirming the continuing value of their alliances with the United States, animosity toward American troops based in Northeast Asia is rising. In 1995, U.S. assistant defense secretary Joseph Nye prepared a report that urged Washington to maintain 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen in South Korea and Japan at least until 2015. Since then that figure, nicely rounded off, has taken on huge symbolic importance. Any lessening would be seen as the start of an American retreat from Asia and all of the uncertainties such a move implies. Yet in the fast-changing geopolitical context, who would be willing to bet that 100,000 American troops will be in Asia in 2015, or even 2010?

It is important to make a distinction between the alliance system itself and troop levels. Washington maintains bilateral defense treaties with six countries in the region, including Australia and New Zealand, but stations combat troops in only two. In 1998 former Japanese prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro argued in the American journal Foreign Affairs for troop reductions, but he stopped far short of advocating that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty be abrogated. Polls consistently show that by large margins, the Japanese public supports the security treaty, but a growing majority supports reducing or removing American troops from Japan.

One reason, of course, is that people in Japan and, increasingly, South Korea feel less threatened than they did at the height of the Cold War. Until the 1980s it was easier to justify the presence of American troops, with the threat posed by an expansionist, heavily armed U.S.S.R. Since the Soviet breakup, however, Russian forces in Asia have withered on the vine. Most of the Pacific fleet is rusting at anchor. The idea that Russia could mount a credible invasion with conventional forces is fast receding.

In the 1990s, the North Korean threat supplanted the Russian bogey. An unusually bellicose Pyongyang expanded its army, tried to develop nuclear weapons and who knows what else, and fired missiles over its neighbor. Successive Japanese defense white papers painted a diminishing Russian and growing North Korean threat. Now, however, one opens the newspaper and reads of new peace initiatives on the divided peninsula almost every day. It would be vastly premature to argue that Pyongyang has been tamed, but as the two Koreas move closer to reconciling, it is harder to justify 37,000 foreign troops in the South. Indeed, the North may increasingly harp on their presence as a major barrier to improving ties.

Some might argue that American troops are still needed to check Beijing's ambitions — except that it is politically incorrect to treat China as a threat. One can make the case both ways, with the expanding missile arsenal of the People's Liberation Army and its purchases of modern arms, on the one hand, and the PLA's declining overall conventional strength. Indeed, some may argue that the presence of American forces may expose a host country to attack even in a conflict in which it is not involved. Moreover, the main area where East Asian countries are wary about Beijing, the South China Sea, justifies a U.S. air and naval presence, but not ground troops.

Further complicating the politics of foreign troops is the spread of democracy, which gives ordinary citizens a greater say in defense matters, even though their understanding is still limited by both the need for military secrecy and the complexity of security issues. Thus, an American serviceman's crime could whip up public outrage, but the nation's weighty defense needs may not get as much attention. People Power in the Philippines led directly, if not immediately, to the closing of Clark and Subic Bay bases. For their part, the Japanese, even those on the main islands where the U.S. presence is almost invisible, may eventually balk at the estimated $125,000-per-soldier cost of hosting the Americans.

Rapid-deployment forces may offer a more politically palatable alternative which would still serve the security objectives of the U.S. and its allies. This would require regular deployment exercises with various countries as well as the beefing up of their forces, so they can hold out until reinforcements arrive (both these measures, by the way, are in themselves good for regional defense). Thus, securing Asia would become a truly allied effort. The alternative may well be a U.S. pullout in the face of growing popular opposition.

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