|The Pentagon's paradigm shift in
By Phar Kim Beng
KONG - Last week's announcement of a redeployment of US
troops based in Korea was part of an overall realignment
of strategic troop placement in Asia, the first sign of
which was a May 29 article in the Los Angeles times that
caused a frenzy among US allies in the region, who
claimed they had not been consulted. All indications
are, however, that the Pentagon is in no hurry to carry
out its plans.
The Los Angeles Times reported
that "the Pentagon wants to move US troops from South
Korea and Japan to new bases in Southeast Asia and
Australia". The report also affirmed that the Pentagon
was seeking agreements to increase its military presence
in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and to base
navy ships in Vietnamese waters.
and Australia denied that the Pentagon has any such
plans, citing the absence of any mutual agreement, US
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told
reporters at the International Institute for Strategic
Studies defense dialogue in Singapore a day after the LA
Times report was released that while the account was
wrong on the exact number of troop deployments, it was
"broadly accurate" on Pentagon plans. If the LA Times
report needed any vindication, that was it.
Since then stories of Pentagon's latest plans
have expanded to include references to India. That
country, according to one Pentagon official, lies "at
the center of Asia", so it would be logical to locate
some US troops there too. While the Defense Ministry of
India has yet to repudiate the report, the flurry of
news about Pentagon's plans are serving as the perfect
grist for the intelligence and defense community
throughout the region.
To be sure, the
Pentagon's plans have been in motion for some time. The
present plans attempt to redistribute the security risks
that have accrued to US military bases, an objective
consistent with the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense
Review (QDR). Indeed, the rationale for more places to
host US military troops also stemmed from the fear of a
decisive attack launched against the military base in
South Korea and Japan.
Many US military
installations remain just as vulnerable as they were
before the attacks of September 11, 2001, despite a
heightened awareness of terrorist threats. As Richard
Marcinko, a former US Navy SEAL (Sea-Air-Land special
forces member), explained: "It would take one determined
suicide bomber, for example, to wreak havoc on a major
naval base. A kamikaze truck could ram through the
gates, plunge into the water, detonate a bomb right next
to sleeping nuclear submarines, spreading enough radio-
activity to pollute large sections of the ocean. It
could be a one man job."
The recent suicidal
attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca, while not directed at
any military targets, brought home the real threat of a
team of terrorists shooting their way through, before
In the case of South
Korea, troop redeployment has verged on something of a
taboo for the past five decades prior to the Pentagon's
latest plans. Thus, the fact that Pentagon was willing
to act on it at all marked a critical phase in military
Unlike other US defense secretaries
before him, Donald Rumsfeld does not believe that troop
transfer should only occur as a tit-for-tat with
Pyongyang. Rumsfeld believes that since long-range US
military supremacy has already improved vastly, shown
not least by the military prowess of US war campaigns
over the last decade, it is high time to move the troops
from harm's way.
Nor does the US military want
to expose itself to the direct tactical assault of North
Korea in one strike, a prospect that has strengthened
considerably since North Korea's confession of having
nuclear weapons. This has also enhanced Pyongyang's
negotiation posture with the US.
At any rate,
the LA Times report continued to resonate, one might
add, at amazing speed. Last Wednesday, it was announced
by Seoul that the US 2nd Infantry Division would
relinquish its frontline defensive role in two stages
over the next few years.
The division, whose
motto is "In Front of Them All," has stood eye to eye
with North Korean troops on the border since the end of
the 1950-53 Korean War, which killed 3 million people.
So far, what is open to question is the issue of when
the troop redeployment would begin.
Pentagon's plans in South Korea may be proceeding
swiftly, those in Southeast Asia have come under some
disrepute. Malaysia, which is afraid of an Islamic
backlash against hosting a US military presence, has
opposed the initiative. As one of the pioneers of the
Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1970,
a concept meant to prevent great powers from interfering
in regional affairs, Malaysia has a stake in keeping the
region free from excessive US forward deployment.
Although the Philippines has been promoted to
the status of a full ally by the administration of US
President George W Bush in the "war on terror", the
Philippine Congress's reception remains lukewarm.
Be that as it may, this situation can change
according to the national security of the country.
Southeast Asia has always met its defense needs through
various bilateral, rather than multilateral,
To balance the perennial fear of
an emergent China, for example, the Philippines took a
U-turn by signing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)
with the US during the short tenure of president Joseph
Vietnam has in turn warmed to the
Pentagon's plans; not in permitting the physical
presence of US troops on Vietnam soil, but to allow US
Navy vessels to ply its waters.
even if these countries accept the Pentagon's plans in
principle, they are still reluctant to upgrade their
defense ties with the US formally. That is, not until
three issues are effectively managed.
has to do with the terms under which US military access
may be allowed. Prior to the withdrawal of US military
from the Clark and Subic air bases, for instance, the
Philippine government insisted that US aid programs be
regarded as "rent" for the bases. The US government
refused to budge.
It became a long-standing
irritant, which heightened during 1990 when Manila
argued there had been a US$222 million shortfall. The
United States eventually conceded a sum less than half
that, and opted for a complete withdrawal in 1991.
Learning from this lesson, some leaders in Southeast
Asia are invariably not committed to supporting
Pentagon's plans in principle before this sensitive
issue is resolved.
Second, when the US military
left Clark and Subic, it also left a litany of
environmental problems. In 1992, the US General
Accounting Office (GAO) admitted as much when it
reported contaminated sites in Clark and Subic but
claimed "no responsibility for environmental damage".
Leaders in Southeast Asia would be aware of this point
At any rate, if leaders in Southeast Asia
should somehow feel that they can squeeze more money and
control out of the Bush administration, that is given
Washington's concern with terrorist attacks, the threat
of North Korea, indeed even the growing power of China,
they had better reconsider. Their leverage may not be
While Pentagon does want more places for its
troops, it will not enter into any arrangement that
might require the United States to surrender too much
control or taxpayers' dollars. After all, the US
military has already developed considerable accuracy in
its armament, on land, air and sea. It has access to the
Changi naval base in Singapore too - a facility also
built and maintained at the expense of the Singaporean
government - which has the means to host the deployment
of the US 7th Fleet.
Despite the paradigm shift
in US military thinking, it would not be wrong to assume
that the United States is willing to bide its time in
order to extract the best arrangement.
(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All
rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for
information on our sales and syndication policies.)