American optimism about East Asia, in precious short supply only a few years earlier, was abundantly available in 1980. "The arc from Korea through Taiwan and the Philippines, at the very center of great power rivalry for much of this century, is less subject to these strains today than at any time in well over forty years," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke declared in June. Such pronouncements by U.S. policymakers were understandable: East Asia offered far more possibilities-for diplomatic overtures, for expanding trade-than anyone dared predict during the Vietnam era. But in 1980 enough warning signals were flashing throughout the region to suggest the need for a more balanced-and less buoyant-assessment.
The strongest warning signals emanated from both ends of Holbrooke's arc. South Korea completed a tortuous, bloody journey from the repression of the Park Chung Hee era, through an intoxicating period of post-Park liberalization, and then back to an even more severe brand of repression under its new military strongman-turned-President, Chun Doo Hwan. This retrogression represented far more than simply a setback for democracy and human rights: it threatened to lock up feelings of frustration and anger that could explode at any time. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship continued to lose credibility with its own people and was reduced to devoting most of its efforts merely to maintaining power. A string of dramatic terrorist bombings beginning in August indicated that opposition warnings about the possibility of violence could no longer be dismissed as empty rhetoric.
For the United States, those developments have major implications. South Korea is still the most likely flashpoint in Asia for a major conflict, and it and the Philippines are the only two nations in Asia where the United States still maintains a military presence. Internal strife could threaten the future of those bases. In the Philippines, a strain of anti-Americanism has been visible for some time among the most militant opposition groups, some of whom have openly demanded the ouster of the U.S.