Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance

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Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance

Part one of a two-part series evaluating the evolving network of US bases in the Asia-Pacific.

Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

The first part of a two-part series that evaluates the United States’ evolving network of bases in the Asia-Pacific and the opportunities and challenges each brings to the table moving forward.

The Asia-Pacific region, central to global economic and geopolitical development in the twenty-first century, is the logical focus of the Obama Administration’s ongoing rebalancing of capabilities, relations, and presence thereto. This effort is inspired by profound challenges and opportunities emerging in the region. Aspects of China’s rapid, broad-based development fall into both categories, with challenges including increasingly potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems that threaten the viability of potential opponents’ forces with long-range precision strike capabilities. Central to American presence and influence in the vital Asia-Pacific, but facing increasing vulnerabilities, is a complex network of bases and access points that has been too long neglected by both scholars and the American public. This two-part series addresses these timely and important issues, surveys present U.S. basing infrastructure, and examines key challenges and trends that Washington confronts as attempts to preserve its capabilities and influence in the Asia-Pacific.

In an address to the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that the United States, as part of a general upgrade of its security cooperation with Australia, would deploy up to 2,500 U.S. Marines at Darwin in northern Australia. Although the United States has long enjoyed a close military (and intelligence) relationship with Australia, not since World War II has any significant American military force been stationed permanently on the continent. This move, the president explained, reflected “a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.” Together with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s late 2011 visit to Myanmar (Burma), the first by an American secretary of State in more than half a century, this is the most striking manifestation of a new determination on the part of the Obama administration to reassert the United States’ traditional interests in the Asia-Pacific region, to reassure its friends and allies there of the long-term nature of its commitment to them, and to send an unmistakable signal to the People’s Republic of China that the United States is and intends to remain a “Pacific power” fully prepared to meet the challenge of China’s rise and its regional ambitions.

It is striking that this very significant upgrade to the U.S.–Australian security relationship (which extends to other measures, such as increased joint exercises and greater access for U.S. aircraft to Australian air bases) passed without a great deal of comment in the United States; yet it is hardly surprising. While they have identified Asia as the most important region to the United States since 2011, Americans have long taken for granted the global network of military bases and facilities of all kinds that the United States acquired following World War II and has largely if not completely retained ever since. The “forward basing” or “forward presence” of American military forces around the world has become accepted by them as a natural and legitimate expression of America’s geographical situation as well as its long-established role as the world’s chief security provider.

Yet the fact remains that America’s global military presence is without parallel in the contemporary world, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a retraction of its military presence in Eastern Europe and other far-flung corners of the Soviet empire. The exception is a minor ship-repair and replenishment facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia does, however, retain (or has regained) bases throughout much of the former Soviet space. The largest is the naval base at Sevastopol in Ukrainian Crimea; bases or facilities of varying significance also exist in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan. Only Britain and France also regularly maintain military bases and forces abroad. A legacy of their own imperial pasts, their overseas claims and force postures have diminished over time.

But what Americans ignore or take for granted is neither ignored nor taken for granted by many foreigners, including friends and allies of the United States. For the latter, an American military presence on their soil raises inevitable questions of national sovereignty, often leads to frictions of various kinds with the host populations and political complications for their governments, and, not least, threatens to embroil them in unwanted military conflicts.

Much skepticism or outright opposition to bases by allied and adversary populations, however, is shaped by the fact that the bases are indeed perceived to be militarily effective. Thus, skeptics or outright opponents in allied nations may emphasize bases’ negative side effects or portray them as targets or obstacles to peace, but allied populations overall, over time and in times of crisis, tend to appreciate their utility. Potential adversaries, moreover, are keenly aware of the presence of American troops and warships on their doorstep and highly sensitive to their activities (exercises, notably) as well as to any alteration in their numbers or makeup. While they may vehemently oppose American bases on the territory of their neighbors, they are deterred by them all the more. In the minds of many, American bases abroad are one of the clearest manifestations of the United States’ own brand of imperialism, deny or disguise it though it will. Particularly in this regard, in addition to the other aforementioned reasons, it is puzzling that serious students of American national security policy have paid so little attention to the subject of overseas basing over the years.

After the end of the Cold War, the United States substantially reduced the number of American troops stationed abroad, particularly those intended for the defense of West Germany against a massive invasion by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. During the first half of the 1990s the United States withdrew nearly 300,000 military personnel from abroad and closed or turned over to host governments some 60 percent of its overseas military installations. Major bases closed included Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Torrejón Air Base in Spain as well as a complex of bases in Panama. Still, much of the American base infrastructure of the Cold War era remained largely as it had been until after the turn of this century. In the first term of President George W. Bush, then Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld, as part of a larger project to “transform” America’s armed forces for a new strategic and technological environment, launched a major review of the entire American military presence abroad. This initiative, which became known as the Global Posture Review (GPR), was spearheaded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and involved intensive collaboration with the uniformed military and the Department of State as well as consultation with the affected host countries. In September 2004 the Pentagon released a report titled “Strengthening U.S. Global Defense Posture,” which provided a summary of the overall effort—by then well underway—as well as a region-by-region survey of the projected changes.

In a foreword to this document, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith made the following comment:

Since the United States became a global power at the turn of the 20th century, it has changed its forward posture as strategic circumstances have evolved: from bases for administering new overseas territories, to post–World War II occupation duties, and then to a Cold War containment posture. Today, fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is again time to change our posture to fit the strategic realities of our era: an uncertain strategic environment dominated by the nexus of terrorism, state sponsors of terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Of the “strategic realities of our era,” the global threat of radical Islamist-inspired terrorism of course holds center stage. This threat in particular suggests a global basing or presence infrastructure quite different from that of the Cold War era—one more highly distributed and emphasizing new capabilities such as remotely piloted drones and special operations forces, and one extending to parts of the world not previously active theaters of American military operations. The clandestine nature of many of these operations as well as the sensitivities of hosting nations (particularly Muslim ones) make it correspondingly more difficult than in the past to develop a full understanding of this new basing network or the political arrangements supporting it.

In other respects, however, the transformation Feith alludes to should not be overstated. A substantial presence of U.S. ground forces in Europe as well as East Asia would continue to be required to give credibility to the U.S. commitment to its traditional allies in those theaters and to undergird regional stability. Under the new plan, some 70,000 U.S. troops were slated to redeploy to the United States over a period of ten years. Among these, some 15,000 would initially be drawn from Asia (South Korea and Japan) while the rest were to be taken from Europe. At the same time, in a number of places the U.S. military presence was actually to be augmented, notably in Eastern Europe (Romania and Bulgaria).

In the years following the release of the GPR, of course, there has been a massive increase in the American military presence abroad owing to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which only now is beginning to be reversed. This has included the construction of numerous semipermanent as well as transient military facilities of all kinds in support of these wars, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves but in neighboring countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The United States has also established a substantial facility in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa dedicated to the prosecution of the fight against radical Islamist-inspired terrorism in Somalia and across northern sub-Saharan Africa. It remains unclear at this juncture what the future will hold regarding a permanent U.S. presence in this vital region.

Central to the reconceptualization of America’s overseas military presence offered in the GPR report is its threefold categorization of types of bases or facilities. Most important are what the document calls “main operating bases,” where American combat troops (and typically their families as well) are permanently stationed in significant numbers in facilities essentially controlled by the United States military, such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany or Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. Then there are “forward operating sites” that are normally maintained by a relatively small U.S. support presence and are used for temporary deployments or training purposes; an example is the Sembawang port facility in Singapore. Finally, “cooperative security locations” are austere facilities shared by the United States and host countries that may have little or no permanent U.S. presence and are designed essentially for contingency use.

Clearly, the preferred option for the future is the latter two categories. They are less expensive, less visible, less vulnerable, and offer greater strategic and operational flexibility; just as important, they are less likely to create political problems for the host government and in fact serve to promote bilateral security cooperation. Indeed, bases that do not have a foreign host government at all (as in overseas U.S. territories, which offer the additional benefit of spending tax dollars domestically, particularly in an era of fiscal austerity); or at least have no local domestic population (as in the British Indian Ocean Territory that includes Diego Garcia) may be seen to have particular advantages in this regard. As of 2013, according to Defense Department figures, the United States had some 695 overseas bases or facilities of these types, of which 97 are in overseas U.S. territories and the rest in 40 foreign countries. The majority of these, however, are in only three countries: Germany (179), Japan (109), and the Republic of Korea (83). This is in comparison to 4,364 U.S.-based facilities, for a grand total of 5,059.

It is customary in discussions of the U.S. military presence overseas to focus on its most visible manifestations, U.S. military personnel and the bases and facilities they occupy in a particular country and region. The U.S. global posture, properly speaking, is something much broader than this, however. It includes America’s political or diplomatic relationships with host nations, the legal arrangements supporting the American presence in (or access to) those nations, prepositioned military equipment, the capacity to surge forces overseas, and global logistics capabilities to transport and sustained forward-deployed forces. Moreover, it is critical to understand bases and facilities not merely in the context of their host nation or the region where they are located but rather as part of a global system with complex interdependencies and interactions.

It is thus critical to examine the countries and territories hosting American bases in one particular region of increasing strategic salience today: the Asia-Pacific. Changes to the U.S. force structure are occurring in a shifting geopolitical environment in which the rise of new powers in Asia, particularly China and India, is creating uncertainty over the future security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region. It has been argued by realist scholars such as John Mearsheimer that America’s dominant position in Northeast Asia (which, along with Western Europe, is considered to be one of the world’s critical regions) facilitates U.S. global hegemony.

Washington needs to rethink fundamentally the American forward presence in Asia in light of the rapid growth in very recent years in the “antiaccess/area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities of the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China. This is largely a story of the evolution of existing locations: despite increasing challenges to American interests in East Asia, the prospects for additional U.S. foreign basing and access rights are declining throughout the region. In response to domestic political pressures in their host nations, facilities and forces in Japan and South Korea are already being consolidated and reduced. Despite efforts to focus on “places, not bases,” Washington seems unlikely to acquire further major footholds in East Asia. A survey of these locations (which will be offered in the second part of this two-part series) suggests many challenges and opportunities for Washington.

Carnes Lord is Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College, Newport, RI and Director of the Naval War College Press. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI).