Transpacific relations today have become almost as uncertain as those across the Atlantic. The United States' strategic position in East Asia is changing, and in ways few anticipated just a couple of years ago. America's role in the region and its military posture there will look very different at the end of this decade than they did at the start of it.

The changes are due in part to trends within East Asia itself—trends over which the United States has little control and lessening influence. Two factors have affected Washington's role most directly. The first is the rise of China, in both economic and geopolitical terms. And the second is the dramatic diminishment of Japan's economic vitality, which has led its regional influence to slip. Japan will remain a major economic player in the region for years to come, especially as a source of investment and technology for the rest of Asia. But its strategic value to the United States, although still great, is declining.

Meanwhile, other players are starting to take on more importance in East Asia. First among these is South Korea, where stunningly rapid economic growth, burgeoning democracy, and generational change have produced a newly assertive and more independent foreign policy. At the same time, Taiwan—long an economic powerhouse and ward of Washington—is being further marginalized internationally and increasingly integrated into the mainland's economy. Peaceful reconciliation between the two Chinas thus now seems closer than ever.

Changes outside Asia have also affected the U.S. role in the region. First on this list is the Bush administration's preoccupation with the war on terrorism. Fighting terror has become as or more important to Washington than were its traditional concerns for peace and stability. This shift in priorities—as well as America's demonstrated ability to wage war with minimal international support and the reconsideration of its worldwide basing requirements—has raised pointed questions about the vitality of the U.S. commitment to its long-standing alliances in Asia and elsewhere.

More specifically, the war on terror has led to a new American focus on the growth of Islamic extremism among Muslim populations of Southeast Asia. Suddenly, that area is experiencing significant American involvement—including the United States' largely unexamined participation in a small war in the Philippines.

Together, all of these changes in Asia will ultimately require Washington to reexamine its strategy of the 1990s. That strategy was based on the idea that stability and prosperity in East Asia depend on a "hub and spokes"—that is, bilateral relationships between the United States and key regional players—and on the trilateral relationship among the United States, China, and Japan. These relationships will obviously continue to be important. But the United States, consciously or not, has already begun stepping back from its role as the unique balancing power in East Asia and is moving toward a closer relationship with China instead. Despite the strategic differences that remain between the two countries, a new and heretofore unimaginable relationship is developing, with regional actors also playing important roles. Power and influence are diffusing, although this trend has been restrained by continuing tensions over North Korea and Taiwan.


Over the past 50 years, Korea has played a key role in U.S. policy toward Asia; affairs on the peninsula have long affected the more central U.S.-Japan security alliance. Developments on the Korean peninsula now could thus profoundly affect Washington's strategy toward the entire region, and so the peninsula is a good starting place for a discussion of the changes sweeping across East Asia.

Already, relations on the peninsula have started to shift dramatically. The two Koreas have moved from unrelenting hostility toward a wary but creeping reconciliation. Simultaneously, Seoul's relationship with Beijing has expanded exponentially, even as China continues to provide crucial economic aid to the North. Meanwhile, U.S.-South Korean ties have become seriously strained. The only thing that has not changed on the peninsula is the totalitarian, militarized nature of Kim Jong Il's regime.

For all the criticism leveled at former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engaging North Korea—his crude attempt to purchase Pyongyang's favor, the lack of reciprocity, and the creation of a false sense of security in the South—the idea underlying his strategy has taken root. South Korea is using its economic strength to move the South-North relationship from a Cold War standoff to a cautious but peaceful coexistence. Growing contacts, including a widely watched summit meeting in Pyongyang, have allowed many Koreans, especially in the South, to catch glimpses of their neighbors, reducing fears of war. Few South Koreans now consider the impoverished North's nuclear program or missile capabilities overtly threatening—at least to them. Many Southerners, especially the younger generation, regard the North more as a charity case than as a security threat.

For its part, North Korea has become increasingly dependent on the South's munificence without making real moves toward economic reform. Seoul's tolerance for carrying Pyongyang economically does have limits, both practically and politically. But President Roh Moo Hyun campaigned on promises to continue his predecessor's Sunshine Policy, and so far, his constituents seem more worried about the North's collapse than they are about the costs of engagement or nuclear weapons. This balance could still change, however, if Kim Jong Il overestimates the South's tolerance for his bluster and nuclear provocations—especially the negative effects his brinkmanship is having on South Korea's economy.

As for China, it has for some time worked hard on its relationships with both Koreas. Although Pyongyang's trust in Beijing never recovered from the blow it was dealt when China established diplomatic ties to the South in 1992, China has retained real influence with the North—certainly more than any other country has. This influence, of course, is due in great part to the massive amounts of aid China continues to send over the Yalu River—aid that, for example, now accounts for between 70 and 90 percent of North Korea's fuel imports.

In the meantime, the Chinese-South Korean relationship has grown impressively. Last year, China surpassed the United States as South Korea's largest export market. South Korean firms have also joined the flood of foreign companies investing in China as they struggle to stay competitive with low-cost Chinese sales in third markets. And political and military ties are also growing warmer, having been boosted by the two countries' converging interests about how to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Even as South Korea's ties with China have strengthened, its alliance with the United States has become more and more difficult. The current tensions are partly a byproduct of South Korea's enormous economic success, which has made the South Korean public both more assertive and profoundly concerned about how much would be lost if there were ever another war with the North. Relations between Seoul and Washington have often been strained in the past, but differences were previously held in check by a shared sense of danger from the North. Now, however, many South Koreans (although far from all of them) no longer sense a severe threat from north of the 38th parallel and so have started to question the substantial and highly visible American military presence in their country. Although the wave of anti-Americanism that accompanied last year's presidential election appears to have receded, many South Koreans continue to resent Washington for what they charge is unequal treatment and disregard of their concerns.

The United States has also complicated matters through its own behavior. Whatever the value of the Sunshine Policy, the Bush administration never liked it much, and its obvious distaste for deals with Kim Jong Il's regime opened a rift between the two countries. This rift became a gulf in October 2002, when Pyongyang admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program. Initially, Seoul and Washington favored different strategies for dealing with this revelation. Facing a massive conventional threat to its capital, South Korea was less worried about the nuclear problem and the danger that the North would pass on fissile materials to terrorists or other states (a real source of concern for Washington). Some progress has since been made—at least rhetorically—in narrowing the differences between the allies. But South Koreans still worry that what the United States really aims for in the North is regime change, not a negotiated dismantling of the North's nuclear program. Southerners feel the American approach could well lead to war or the collapse of North Korea, either of which, they believe, would decimate everything South Korea has built in recent years.

Already, the U.S.-South Korean estrangement over the nuclear problem is starting to affect the posture of U.S. forces in the area. The U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan was largely designed to deter North Korea, but U.S. officials assumed—at least until recently—that when and if the North Korean threat ended, some American troops would remain on the peninsula as a regional balancing force—and would be welcomed. Both sides, however, are now questioning that assumption, and pressure is growing to reduce the American deployment. The North's catastrophic economic decline has eroded its conventional military capabilities, and the South's military has also become much stronger.

Yet when recent South Korean complaints about American troop deployments led Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to suggest that the United States move its main force to somewhere south of Seoul and consider reductions in forces, the warnings prompted South Koreans to reconsider what they had wished for. The South Korean government quickly proclaimed the importance of U.S. forces' remaining where they were. Ironically, many of the same Koreans who agitated against U.S. troops now fear that removing them from near the demilitarized zone will enable the United States to more easily attack North Korean nuclear facilities. Even more important, Kim Jong Il likely shares this perception.

Nonetheless, the United States now seems determined to change its military footprint in South Korea—initially, by redeploying its ground forces within the country, and later by reducing their number. Bilateral talks about repositioning have already begun, despite the disharmony in the alliance and the ongoing North Korean threat. Such a change hardly constitutes abandonment, however; given the remarkable technological improvements in the U.S. military, deterring an attack from the North will no longer require such a large ground force close to the front.


Changes in the presence of American forces in South Korea will also raise questions about the size and mission of the U.S. military in Japan, where American bases have long been a sore spot. The U.S. alliance with Japan has, for almost 50 years now, formed the foundation of Washington's Asia strategy. Japan still has the second largest economy in the world, boasting a high level of personal income and cutting-edge technology. It thus remains a valued ally. But having grown economically less dynamic over the last decade, Japan's influence in Asia is fading—as is its strategic importance to the United States. The assertion famously made in the 1980s by Mike Mansfield, then U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, that the U.S.-Japan relationship was the most important in the world "bar none" no longer resonates.

As Japan's influence has shrunk, its security strategy has evolved in modest ways, some of which have been welcomed by Washington. For example, the United States warmly received recent legislation allowing the deployment of Japanese naval ships in the Indian Ocean to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Washington also welcomed Tokyo's decision to fund research on ballistic missile defense, its fresh interest in buying Patriot missiles, and its launching of intelligence satellites.

Meanwhile, North Korea remains Japan's most immediate concern. Pyongyang shocked Tokyo in 1998 when it test-fired a long-range missile over Japan, and North Korea has since deployed some 100 missiles capable of reaching Japan. In response, Japanese officials have recently spoken publicly of "preempting" North Korean threats. Tokyo has also taken punitive actions, such as cutting the remittances that Koreans in Japan send to the North. Despite the tough talk, however, Japan fears that any U.S. effort to destroy North Korea's nuclear facilities will result in retaliatory attacks on Japan.

Nor will the Japanese adopt a more assertive, independent national security strategy any time soon. Discussions within Japan about the constitutional implications of "collective self-defense" have not gone far. The Japanese establishment has a strong affinity for continued security dependence on the United States. Ultimately, however, Japanese public opinion and policy will be greatly affected by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and by Japan's confidence in the U.S. handling of these issues.

Japan, of course, also remains permanently preoccupied with China, and its calculations about the future will be based on what happens there. Tokyo is anxiously watching the pace of Beijing's military modernization, the evolution of its relations with Washington, and bilateral Chinese-Japanese ties. For the time being, Japan seems clueless about how to respond to China's rapidly expanding economic and political presence; until it devises a strategy, policy will continue to drift.

On balance, it seems more likely than not that American ground forces in Japan will be drawn down in the not-too-distant future, especially as withdrawals take place in South Korea. Access to naval bases in Japan, however, will remain particularly important to any evolving U.S. strategic position in East Asia, and the bilateral security alliance will remain important to both countries.


Apart from events on the Korean peninsula and Japan, the third major development reshaping American strategy in Asia is the dramatic shift in the United States' perception of China. In short order, Beijing has gone from Washington's strategic competitor to being its security collaborator and a major trade and investment partner.

The change has been abrupt, dating to the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the Bush administration virtually reversed its China policy. This turnaround was reflected in the administration's National Security Strategy, released a year later, which identified terrorism—and not a rising China—as the United States' primary strategic threat. Indeed, Washington has made clear that it sees the fight against terror as an interest that it shares with Beijing, although human rights considerations may come to trouble that bond. President Bush recently received outgoing Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Texas, and Vice President Dick Cheney, an arch China-skeptic, plans to visit Beijing later this year. Even the recalcitrant Pentagon has resumed high-level military exchanges with China, and both countries have expanded their intelligence cooperation.

Preoccupied by the war on terror and events in Iraq, the United States has also pushed China to play a bigger role in maintaining Asian security—a role of which Washington would no doubt have been wary prior to September 11. Nowhere is this new reliance starker than regarding North Korea, with which the United States has refused to deal bilaterally. Instead, Washington has pressed Beijing to take the lead in keeping Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear weapons programs. This element of U.S. policy makes sense, since China shares U.S. concerns about weapons proliferation in its neighborhood. And there have already been strong signs of Chinese cooperation: the talks held in late April between all three countries were one result of pressure from Beijing.

Chinese officials, however, believe that the North Korean nuclear problem will ultimately be resolved only through direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The issue could thus still become a source of serious tension with the United States. China also remains strongly opposed to any effort at a military solution to the problem. And it fears the prospect of a North Korean collapse, which would send refugees flooding across China's border. Beijing is thus unlikely to consider sustained coercive measures that would risk destabilizing North Korea as long as Washington resists serious negotiation with Pyongyang.

Regarding the rest of Asia, almost three decades of spectacular economic growth have dramatically increased China's political weight and caused all other Asian nations to rebalance their foreign policies in subtle but important ways. The Chinese economy has defied Western expectations by continuing to grow explosively. Economic ties between China and its neighbors are thus also expanding at a tremendous pace and have become central to the foreign policies of many local countries. China has begun to realize broad regional trade initiatives, leapfrogging Japan, for example, in starting negotiations on a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean). And Beijing is endeavoring to project a generally benign external image. Although China is deeply interested in playing a larger role in its region, it seems committed to the principle that its own national interest is best served by stability on its periphery and steady integration into the global economy.

To be sure, although China has worked hard to diminish suspicions of its intentions, many of its neighbors remain wary of it. Maintaining an American counterweight thus remains appealing, as long as doing so does not cost too much. Over the long term, however, China's neighbors recognize that, as with the weather, they must adjust to China's growing power.

All of this should bear well on the Sino-American relationship. It is important to remember, however, that the underlying politics of that relationship remain unstable. Many Chinese leaders, strongly suspicious of American power, were deeply disturbed by Washington's willingness to intervene without un approval in Kosovo and Iraq. Taiwan remains a neuralgic issue and could quickly decline into crisis. In the United States, meanwhile, many on the right remain similarly distrustful of China, detest its government, fear the abandonment of Taiwan or would like to see its independence, and believe the United States is contributing too much to China's military strength. The Sino-U.S. train could thus easily run off the rails once again, although both governments are accruing stronger interests in preventing that from occurring.


The shifting balance within Asia poses a particular challenge for Taiwan, East Asia's other potential conflict zone where the United States has long acted as a key military deterrent. China's growing prominence within Asia and Taiwan's own increasing economic interdependence with the mainland are creating new constituencies for reconciliation and will make it increasingly difficult for Taipei to resist a serious negotiation with Beijing over time. Some 700,000 Taiwanese now live in China, and Taiwanese investment, estimated to exceed $100 billion, is growing rapidly there. Beijing appears to believe that expanding these economic ties will significantly improve its bargaining position and help resolve the conflict. Accordingly, in 2002, China's defense white paper, although it expressed commitment to modernizing China's military, took a softer tone on Taiwan than in the past, and Beijing appears to be moderating its rhetoric in general. Of course, China will never drop its opposition to Taiwanese independence altogether, since reunification remains central to Communist Party ideology.

As for Washington's role, Taipei has reason to be worried by recent developments. The Bush administration began its tenure by talking of a more robust relationship with and new arms sales to the island. Since then, U.S. reliance on China to help resolve the North Korean crisis, and the general strengthening of U.S.-China ties since September 11, has dampened Taiwanese morale. Some Taiwanese may now regret their decision to abandon the nuclear option, as they begin to wonder whether the United States will really be willing to defend them in the event of a conflict against a nuclear-armed China. It would, however, be exceedingly hard for lonely Taiwan to resurrect its nuclear weapons program.

The United States will continue to reassure Taiwan about its security by offering to sell new arms to the island and helping Taiwan gain a presence in international forums, while warning China not to be too aggressive. Time is not on Taiwan's side, however. Domestic politics in democratic Taiwan could lead to a precipitous move, such as a declaration of independence, which China would take as an extreme provocation. Many in Taiwan would like to delay talks with China indefinitely. It is more likely, however, that serious negotiations on relations with Beijing, either publicly or in secret, will begin in the not-too-distant future. The United States, which has always advocated a peaceful resolution to the conflict, should favor such a development, which would gradually relieve Washington of its military role in the Taiwan Strait.


After more than a decade of relative American disengagement from Southeast Asia, the war on terrorism has once again made the region more central to U.S. strategy. Since September 11, new concerns about Islamic extremism in the region and links to al Qaeda have caused Washington to reexamine its interests and role there, which was previously limited to commercial factors and support for regional institutions such as asean.

The United States is now working closely with all Southeast Asian governments other than Burma's to fight terrorism. Congress has increased appropriations for military sales and police training. U.S. intelligence capabilities, which were seriously weakened in the 1990s, are being bolstered substantially, and cooperation with national intelligence agencies in the region has improved. Last October, at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Mexico, President Bush proposed that Malaysia host a regional counterterrorism center, which is now being established. And U.S. special operations forces are now working with the Philippine military to wipe out Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda.

The United States may find, however, that the security measures it has taken are not sufficient to address the growth of radicalism in Southeast Asia. Terrorism does not arise in a vacuum. Politically and economically weak states, such as Indonesia, could sink into chaos or produce governments threatening to Washington. The United States will thus likely find itself drawn once again into the political and economic modernization of these countries. It will not be easy, however, for the United States to reengage in Southeast Asia more deeply, given regional opposition to U.S. military involvement and the danger local governments will face if they look subservient to American pressure. Already such pressures are being felt: to cite one example, Washington's decision earlier this year to send 1,700 more troops to the Philippines has been held up by intense local opposition to the move.


Given the complexities discussed above, the future of the American security presence in East Asia presents an increasingly mixed picture. In the short term the possibilities for hostilities on the Korean peninsula and, to a lesser extent, in the Taiwan Strait remain real, and U.S. military engagement there remains essential to preserving the peace. In Korea, however, recent American actions have frightened the United States' friends almost as much as its foes—a sign that Washington should either reconsider its policies or improve its powers of persuasion.

For the time being, the most pressing question—and the source of greatest uncertainty—remains North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. At bottom, the issue is an existential one for North Korea: Pyongyang appears to realize it must change if it is to survive, but it fears that change will imperil its very survival. North Korea's strategy thus remains unclear. In the aftermath of the second Gulf War, Pyongyang may well have concluded that it cannot do without nuclear weapons. It remains uncertain whether any package of security guarantees and economic benefits will change Kim Jong Il's mind, and the answer can be learned only through negotiation. The dispute could still turn violent, although war is more likely to result from miscalculation or miscommunication than a deliberate decision. Pyongyang still fails to recognize that its best chance of survival lies in working out some sort of political arrangement with Seoul. Unlikely as it may seem today, North and South may eventually do just that.

Many Koreans still fear that the quick end to the second Gulf War will cause the United States to ratchet up the pressure on the South for a more "robust" approach to resolving the nuclear issue. But North Korea is not Iraq, and given military realities on the Korean peninsula, it is almost inconceivable that the United States would try to deal with the nuclear problem militarily. The risks of a North Korean military response against South Korea and Japan are simply too great.

On the other hand, it is equally difficult to imagine simply accepting the fact of a nuclear North Korea. Pyongyang would be tempted to increase or distribute its arsenal, raising hard questions for virtually every other country in the region.

China remains another major uncertainty for American strategy within East Asia. China's economic performance continues to astound, but a stumble would have an enormous impact on the country's domestic stability and foreign policy and the economic prospects of all of East Asia. Now the fast-moving sars epidemic—a totally unanticipated phenomenon—may produce intense economic and political dislocation. So much for certainty in the region.

Rapprochement between Taiwan and China no longer appears remote, but many things can still get in the way, particularly Taiwan's domestic politics. And given Japan's uncertainty about China, North Korea, and the U.S. military presence, Japan could finally begin to discuss rearming. Clearly many Asian countries still look to the United States as their major source of security, but caution and wealth will equally drive them to further deepen their relations with China.

American thinking on Asia will not clarify until some of these major uncertainties are resolved. Conceivably, events on the Korean peninsula may become a catalyst for a renewed American focus. More likely, however, the diffusion of power brought about by economic success in Asia and American preoccupation with the war on terrorism will diminish the American focus on regional security, much as the end of the Cold War led to a decreased interest in European security. The defense of Japan may mean nothing more than keeping tensions between China and Japan down; it is difficult to imagine an actual military conflict between the two.

As East Asian integration progresses, Washington will have to react accordingly. The region will sorely test American diplomacy and economic policy and, as in Europe, Washington's ability to deal with increasingly successful and independent players.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now