Rebalancing Alliances: The Forgotten Side of the US Pivot

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Rebalancing Alliances: The Forgotten Side of the US Pivot

The rebalancing of the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances proves that the pivot to Asia is alive and well.

In the past two days, the United States has released important alliance statements with two of its most prominent East Asian partners. The first followed the annual meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee; the second the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting. Both dialogues, and the joint communiqués they produced, are efforts to respond to the regional security challenges posed by North Korea and China.

While proposed changes to the U.S.-Japan alliance seem to demonstrate Tokyo’s desire to take a more active military role in the alliance, revisions to U.S.-ROK alliance plans indicate an obvious wariness by Seoul to have too much defense independence too quickly.

But the differences are not as clear as they might seem: Both joint statements, either implicitly or explicitly, acknowledge the United States’ commitment to assure both countries of its continued defense commitment, despite an environment of fiscal constraint. The obvious way that Washington can do more with less is to encourage increased participation from its alliance partners, and a brief survey of recent events in each alliance reminds us that there are notable trends towards increased defense autonomy in both alliances. There are, however, ample challenges that accompany increased allied military contributions. These will have to be managed with the utmost care if the United States, South Korea and Japan want to strengthen rather than undermine their own security.

The title of the U.S.-Japan joint statement would appear to say it all: “Toward a More Robust Alliance and Greater Shared Responsibilities.”  Japan has agreed to host an X-band missile defense radar near Kyoto, which lessens the burden on U.S. Aegis ships.  Nine thousand U.S. marines will eventually be relocated from Okinawa (many of them headed to Guam). Japan also announced that it would form an American-style national security council, and expressed a desire to expand outreach to Southeast Asian nations who find themselves in territorial standoffs with China.

All of this comes on the heels of Shinzo Abe’s decision to increase defense spending by three percent, and foreshadows his government’s anticipated re-interpretation of collective self-defense. If and when the latter occurs, Tokyo will be able to provide military assistance in a host of regional contingencies in which it previously would not have been able to participate. There are also ongoing debates over whether Japan should acquire long-range strike capabilities, which previously were prohibited as offensive weaponry, and this summer it launched a naval vessel that looked suspiciously like a small aircraft carrier. Notably, the 2013 summit was also the first Security Consultative Committee to take place in Japan.

But these revisions do not just point to Japan doing more and the United States doing less: they also include the U.S. announcing that it will introduce two squadrons of MV-22 aircraft, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, and rotationally deploy Global Hawk UAVs, primarily to monitor North Korea. We would therefore be remiss to conclude that these alliance revisions point only towards Japanese independence.

The October 2 statement issued by Washington and Seoul would appear to cut in the other direction: South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to a "conditions-based" transfer of operational control of the Combined Forces Command, which Seoul has been seeking for months. South Korea relinquished wartime control over its military to the United States during the Korean War and is yet to retrieve it. This means that, in the event of a war, the United States has command over the South Korean army as well as the 28,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula (although Seoul regained peacetime control in 1994). 

The OPCON transfer has already been delayed twice, but Seoul began to lobby for another postponement after North Korea’s most recent round of missile and nuclear tests. Some South Korean civilian and military leaders fear that the OPCON transfer could weaken deterrence on the peninsula, if it allows the United States to withdraw troops, or gives the North the impression that the alliance will be less prepared to respond to provocations. The “conditions-based” transfer suggests a handover is unlikely to occur in 2015, unless the two years between now and then are especially pacific.

Seoul’s wariness about the OPCON transfer does not mean that South Korea is unilaterally in favor of greater dependence on the U.S. The joint statement itself declares: “The Republic of Korea is committed to developing or acquiring the capabilities necessary to assume the lead of a combined defense,” and Seoul has already been making good on that promise. One year ago, South Korea sought and received permission from the United States to extend the range of its ballistic missiles from 300 to 800km. It has begun to develop an independent missile defense system, and adopted a so-called “Active Deterrence” posture, which embraces some amount of preemption in order to cope with the North Korean nuclear threat.  As in the U.S.-Japan alliance, then, the U.S. and ROK are grappling with how best to balance an increased military role for a longtime junior partner, with continued reliance on U.S. extended deterrence.

At a time of financial strain, there is no question that rebalanced alliance contributions may be best for all parties involved. But as the two alliances make good on their recent joint statements, they would be wise to keep some potential perverse effects in mind.

First, although the United States has many reasons to welcome new independent allied military capabilities and doctrines, these bring with them the possibility of entrapment. Improved ROK and Japanese missile capabilities may contribute to conventional deterrence, but they may also be used in situations inimical to U.S. interests. More independence necessarily means a loss of control.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a rebalancing of alliance contributions may provoke serious security fears in China. Much more than it does with Washington, Beijing has fraught relationships with both Seoul and Tokyo. As much as it is fond of stating the U.S. alliances are efforts to contain it, the prospect of a more robust and independent Japanese military carries with it much greater historical weight than the U.S. military presence can.

Complex regional dynamics in Northeast Asia make this all the more likely. Specifically, actions taken by either alliance to deter or defend against North Korea may make Beijing feel like its security is being undermined. In a new article in the forthcoming Strategic Asia 2013-2014, my colleague, Linton Brooks and I term this a “Security Trilemma,” and we can see how this might play out following either joint statement. Whether it is the X-band radar and Global Hawks, or the U.S. commitment to retain OPCON until the South feels prepared to assume it, policies aimed at ringing in Pyongyang may make Beijing feel encircled (or at the very least, allow it to claim that it does).

This is all to say that these Joint Communiqués are just one stepping stone on what is likely to be a very long path of balancing and re-balancing alliance contributions in the region. It may be tempting to think that greater latitude for Tokyo and Seoul is strictly preferable—who wouldn’t want to try to do more with less? But independence poses some non-trivial risks to the U.S., as well as to the region as a whole, if it provokes a serious diplomatic or military reaction from Beijing.

There is, unfortunately, some solid precedent for the idea that rearmament by a historical adversary and an augmented alliance role could stoke longstanding fears: The rearmament and admission of West Germany into NATO was the Soviet Union’s stated reason for forming the Warsaw Pact. Of course, China has no satellite states with whom to ally, and this is not to argue that greater allied contributions should not be welcomed: Only to urge that they be carefully calibrated and accompanied by concerted diplomacy.

Finally, the meetings in Seoul and Tokyo certainly highlight the many alliance challenges that lie ahead, but they also make one more thing clear: Contrary to one recent argument, they are evidence of the fact that the Pivot to Asia is alive and well.  Unless it rebalances somewhat within its alliances, the United States has little hope of doing so outside of them.