Home inFocus Alliances: American Interests in a Changing World (Fall 2016) AMEXIT: Will the U.S. Maintain its Presence in Asia?

AMEXIT: Will the U.S. Maintain its Presence in Asia?

Junjiro Isomura Fall 2016
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor during an 2013 exercise. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

In the seven decades since the end of World War II, the United States has structured and nurtured alliances in Asia that include ANZUS (with Australia and New Zealand), the Philippines Treaty, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) with Australia, France, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and the United Kingdom. U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korean (ROK) relations have been cornerstones of the U.S. role in Asia. These American-led alliances are critically important for the continuing security and stability of the Asia-Pacific Area, including Southeast and Southwest Asia. American leadership has provided enormous benefit to the U.S. as well, including large scale and stable markets.

Yet, despite the importance of the American presence in the Pacific, and despite the Obama administration’s announced “Pivot to Asia” designed to focus attention on this crucial region, countries are asking, “Will the U.S. maintain its presence in Asia? Will there be AMEXIT from the region?”

Among the regional security relationships, the U.S.-Japan and the U.S.-ROK alliances will be considered in some detail here since, despite the two sets of successful bilateral relations, there is concern that the fractured relations between Japan and South Korea make it difficult to construct a successful threesome. There are ongoing discussions to improve the situation, but the issue is deep-rooted and complicated.

Japan-South Korean Relations

The origin of the emotional friction may be found in Japan’s annexation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, the year of Japan’s defeat. Chinese dynasties, even the Yuan Dynasty of Mongolia that unified the whole of China for the first time in the 13th century, never annexed the Korean Peninsula – even if they devastated it. The fact of the annexation has made Korean attitudes toward Japan even harsher and more emotional than their historically difficult relations with neighbouring China, Russia, and Mongolia. Whatever the reason, it can be said that Japan was ignorant of Korean history and the strong, independent spirit and pride that animates the Korean people.

Today, however, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have to focus on North Korea (DPRK), which is developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, and aggressive Chinese activity in both the East China and South China Seas. It would be sensible to establish a cooperative defense system among the three, but ROK has refused. Despite the difficult history, this is not simply a nationalist ROK reaction to Japan and occupation. Seoul has no intention of stirring up China, which it considers an important and friendly country.

Beijing, Pyongyang, and THAAD

It is generally assumed that Beijing has direct influence over DPRK, which is extraordinarily difficult to deal with. But Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang is actually quite limited. Three provinces of Northeast China – Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang (old Manchuria) – have historically closer relations with DPRK than Beijing. The Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province is the base of relations for both sides of the North Korea-China border, more than 700 km from Beijing. The area is quite active, including business and trade despite the fairly extensive UN sanctions under Security Council Resolution 2087/2013.

But if China claims only limited influence over DPRK, the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in the South is an area in which they appear to find mutual agreement. The U.S. and ROK decided to base THAAD in South Korea as a defense against North Korean missiles – the testing of which continues in the face UN Resolutions demanding that they cease. Despite the Pentagon’s commitment that THAAD will be directed only toward North Korea, Beijing assumes it is intended against China, and is explicitly and heavily threatening Seoul. Public opinion in ROK is divided on the issue and the government is struggling to find a comfortable distance between Washington and Beijing. Washington worries that Seoul will change its mind under public pressure, as has occurred in the past on other issues.

Improving Japan’s Security Outlook

It is Japan’s intention to improve relations with ROK, and the government deeply appreciates Washington acting as go-between Tokyo and Seoul. But to work together, for Japan and ROK will have to conclude the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), prepared in 2012. Just one hour before the expected signing, Seoul pulled out citing public opposition to aligning with Japan.

This is not entirely a criticism of ROK. Japan is a country that is easily isolated by its own behavior. Tokyo should be smart enough and strong enough to prevent its own isolation and behave in a way that lowers the perception of Japan as a threat in the region.

Japan has often been compared to Germany, which sincerely faced its own history and created an honorable and unwavering place for itself to survive in post-war Europe. President Richard von Weizsaecker of West Germany delivered his most famous speech in 1985 at the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII. In 2016, Emperor Akihito sincerely and bravely expressed “deep remorse” over WWII during at a memorial service on the 71st anniversary of the war’s end, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used more ambiguous wording. 

In a sign of growing political maturity, Japan approved a reinterpretation of its pacifist constitution to adopt a policy of collective self-defense with the U.S. and other friendly nations. Also, the Japanese government launched bilateral initiatives to deepen ties with India, the Philippines, Australia, and Vietnam, and will provide patrol boats to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. But for now, Japan’s place in regional alliances is quite fragile in some cases, and all the allies should carefully work to maintain its cohesion. 

The Japanese and Koreans – particularly politicians, scholars, and members of the media – should show more maturity and become more expert on global relations and not be “a frog in a well.” In this area, the U.S. presence in Japan and Korea can serve as a stabilizer and a supervisor.

Improving the U.S.-Japan Relationship

U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) consists of approximately 54,000 military personnel, 42,000 dependents, 8,000 DoD civilian employees, and 85 facilities in Japan.

U.S. Army, Japan consists of about 2,000 soldiers and is charged, during peacetime, with operating port facilities and a series of logistics installations throughout Honshu and Okinawa. The US Seventh Fleet, under the operational control of Commander, Pacific Fleet, has about 19,000 personnel, including 13,000 sailors operating from Japan as part of the Forward Deployed Naval Forces. Marine Corps Installations Pacific provides oversight of Marine Corps installations in Hawaii, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Specifically in Japan, MCIPAC consists of two air stations and 10 camps/housing areas throughout Okinawa and mainland Japan. Headquarters for MCIPAC is at Camp Foster in Okinawa. The total number of Marines is approximately 18,000. The Fifth Air Force has approximately 13,000 military and civilian personnel located at units throughout Japan.   

The Commander of COMUSJAPAN described the mission of the alliance:

The U.S.-Japan alliance is essential to the Free World posture in the Pacific. In the mutual security treaty, the United States and Japan acknowledge that they have a common stake in the security and peaceful progress of the Far East region. USFJ has made a positive contribution to the peace and security of the Far East and to the preservation of world peace.

Security and stability is the mission, and Japan provides a valuable platform for the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as the bridgehead in Asia. But, while the Mutual Security Treaty is essential, in both the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK relationship, the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) is more commonly the subject of discussion – particularly when an American service person is alleged to have committed a crime in either country. The SOFA creates areas of “perceived privilege” under which Americans accused of committing crimes have been removed from Japan before indictment, or where the U.S. keeps a suspect in American custody rather than turning him/her over to Japanese authority.

To the Japanese, these exemptions from Japanese law have the feel of vestiges of the American post-war occupation era. On the other hand, the Japanese legal system, while independent and open, lacks certain constitutional principles to which Americans are accustomed. While some privileges may be appropriate for effective security activity, managing both Japanese and American expectations will be key to renewing the SOFA and improving relations in the coming decades.

There is also some concern that the relationship is inflexible, built on decades-old principles and handled by people with fixed ideas on both sides. It is probably long past time to engage a new generation of expert voices. 

One of the topics of the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, revised in 2015, will be defense technology cooperation. The U.S. and Japan have begun to explore deeper industry cooperation in joint R&D and the transfer of technology from Japan to the U.S. R&D laboratories at Japanese enterprises and universities are a treasure trove of technology, including potential key units for military equipment and effective technologies for counterterrorism, including image analysis.

China’s Future

Japan’s primary defense concern is the pressure of aggressive Chinese activities in the East China Sea. Chinese Coast Guard “CCG” ships have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters at the Senkaku Islands, where the firing and bombing ranges of USFJ are located. China’s claim to these islands since 1970 (although they have been a Japanese possession since the 19th century) has become a major source of concern for Japan.

In August of this year, China sailed 15 CCG ships and about 300 fishing boats across Japanese territorial waters. Adding insult to injury, Beijing tried to turn the table of responsibility and suggested that Japan ignore the violation of its sovereignty and not respond to Chinese activity in the area. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement, “We strongly hope that the Japanese side will deal with the current situation with a cool head instead of taking actions that may raise tension or make things complicated, and make constructive efforts for stability in relevant waters together with us.”

There is some suggestion that Chinese activity at the East China Sea is a reflection of the domestic political situation in Beijing, where serious political differences between President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have emerged.

In considering our common security future, it is inarguable that China, the second largest economic power in the world and expansionist in its aims, will be a major destabilizing and influential factor. Beijing is surely trying to take the initiative to build a new world order and have regional hegemony. It means China will work to combine all its power assets – economic, military, political, the pace of production and consumption, and trade – to fulfill its ambitious.   

There are several issues of concern facing China: destabilization of the domestic situation, factors that obstruct and slow economic development, and a lack of strong leadership needed to sustain the government of an enormous country. The crisis of China’s aging population will be become more serious by the year 2030. A rapid slowdown of productivity and the economy with the demographic change could seriously damage the Communist regime.

Xi Jinping’s greatest concern will be for those things that can shake the regime – something that could be called “a mega impact event,” that could accelerate a process of collapsing the regime and spread chaos. Today, political ideology is not sufficient for capturing the loyalty of the people; economic expansion and mobility has been the dominant theme in Chinese unity for the past decade. But the economy appears to be slowing and there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese who remain in poor and backwards circumstances. A “mega impact event” happening in the next two decades could cause upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

The world has the experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union and other East European countries. Nobody could block the stream. China would be an ocean by comparison, especially for the world economy.


The future structure of our common security and alliance will have to be more broadly inclusive. Not only will it include military structures, but also economics, energy, and politics. And our alliance will share responsibilities for supporting our friends in Southeast and Southwest Asia even from a mega tsunami from China.

In this context, the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) will be an important standard and structure for the coalition of countries. The negotiations for the TPP, however, have lacked strategy and been too narrowly focused on the issue of the tariff. To be successful, negotiations have to be more comprehensive and work to strengthen the economy of all the coalition members as part of strengthening their security. Many ASEAN countries want to participate in TPP, but American politics have made the issue more complicated.

Growing antipathy for TPP in the U.S. has raised some concern about the possibility of “AMEXIT,” that the United States, like Britain, will decide to pull back from alliance relationships. The dangers of AMEXIT cannot be overstated. The U.S.- Japan alliance and the U.S.-South Korean alliance are not only military, but also include a strong economic and political relationship.

Today, no country can live alone. We need substantial cooperation for ensuring security that includes cyber-security, energy, and the economy. We will need a more open discussion of our alliances as our combined future becomes more complicated and our requirements more comprehensive.

Junjiro Isomura is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.